Wal-Mart abandons plan for store near Civil War battlefield

January 26, 2011

Wal-Mart withdrew plans to build a store near a Civil War battle site in central Virginia in an eleventh-hour about-face on Wednesday as historic preservationists prepared to challenge the effort in court.

The world’s largest retailer intended to open a store in Orange County near the location of the Battle of the Wilderness, the first clash between Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, which is often cited as a turning point in the Civil War. Wal-Mart received a special permit from the county to build the store in 2009.

But shortly afterward, a group of historians and residents sued the county and the retailer over the proposal, and the trial was set to begin Wednesday. Wal-Mart said it decided to withdraw from the site early this week and notified the judge Tuesday. The announcement was made in court Wednesday.

“This project has been controversial, and consequently it’s been the subject of a lot of internal discussion and debate,” Wal-Mart spokesman William Wertz said. “We’ve tried to weigh the pros and cons of the project and balance the need for economic growth and the need for preservation.”

Opponents of the store celebrated the decision as a victory for preservationists and Civil War buffs, with several groups vowing to work with Wal-Mart to find an alternative location.

“We firmly believe that preservation and progress need not be mutually exclusive, and welcome Wal-Mart as a thoughtful partner in efforts to protect the Wilderness Battlefield,” said James Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust.

Wal-Mart had argued that the plans for the store did not place it within the main battlefield, which is now owned by the National Park Service. It even offered to install commemorative markers in the store.

But prominent historians, such as Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson and filmmaker Ken Burns, decried the effort, calling the field “hallowed.” Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the battlefield as one of the country’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The controversy over the store took on particular significance this year, which marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. A recent blog post by the National Trust dubbed the store the “Wilderness Wal-Mart” and asked, “Is this the way we’re going to celebrate?”

Michael Capone, a marketing professor at San Diego State University who has followed the case, said Wal-Mart often touts the jobs it will create when seeking to build new stores. But he said Orange County residents sent the company a different message: “Development at any cost doesn’t work here. We don’t need these jobs that bad.”

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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