BigBoxing in Salmon Arm: Round two

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Community's fight against sprawl development intensifies

Part two of a two-part story. Click here to read part one.

For two years, community activists in Salmon Arm led the fight against a gigantic Smart!Centres development planned for an environmentally sensitive floodplain. In October 2008, after five nights of emotional public hearings at which hundreds of community members spoke passionately against the plan, the council voted down the development by the narrowest of margins.

With a three-three tie vote, it was a TKO.

A year later, the developer is back, slicker and meaner, and the community is gearing up for another bitter fight. Will sprawl development or smart development emerge triumphant this round?

Round Two: "Selfish A-holes" and "ordinary people"

That was a little over a year ago. To no one's surprise, Smart!Centres is back. And the fight has gotten even nastier. The developers have replaced their blunt, combative representative with a younger, hipper mouthpiece. While they've returned with basically the same proposal except for some cosmetic changes to mitigate the most outrageous of the environmental problems, the packaging is slicker, the sell harder.

To maintain the impression that the development was a done deal, Smart!Centres began dumping fill on the property in July. They surrounded the site with temporary fencing and big "no trespassing" signs. With city approval, two huge billboards were erected at each end of the property featuring an artist's snazzy rendition of a development that bore little resemblance to the plan being submitted, and their new slogan: "Want a new Shopping Centre in Salmon Arm?" Simple, to the point and playing on a small city's craving for novelty, the slogan conveniently omitted the second part of the question: Regardless of the economic, social and environmental cost?

Headed by a former councilor who had been disqualified for conflict of interest in the first hearing, a so-called "pro-development" group was created. A website advertised on the billboards, was set up by Smart!Centres to publish vitriolic attacks (many unsigned and shown to have been submitted from out of town) on opponents. Smart!Centre boosters began employing the language of class warfare, characterizing the thousands of community members in opposition as "selfish, rich, retired A-holes" and positioning themselves as the champions of the poor with their corporate slogan, "Where Ordinary People Shop for Extraordinary Value." (No matter that the owner of Smart!Centres, Mitchell Goldhar, is one of the 50 wealthiest people in Canada). To announce a gala open house, Smart!Centres sent out thousands of slick cards that were tiny replicas of their billboards. People lined up at the door to get in.

It's clear that this time, Smart!Centres has taken off the gloves. They have begun to strong-arm local media through its considerable legal department. In October, a group of local business people placed a full-page ad in the Salmon Arm Observer showing a truck dumping fill on a wetland and the slogan "What is so Smart! About a Centre on the edge of town?" Two weeks later, under pressure from the company's legal department, the Observer published a full-page "Apology to Smart!Centres," noting that the photograph was "misleading" since it was not of the actual site and that actual dumping would be "hundreds of meters from Shuswap Lake at its nearest point" (though only 50 meters from the Salmon River and actually in the floodplain).

"The Salmon Arm Observer," the message continued, "apologizes unequivocally to Smart!Centres for using its trademark without permission [beware: apparently "Smart!" is now copyrighted], failing to recognize the misleading aspects of the advertisement and for publishing the advertisement. We regret any embarrassment or inconvenience to Smart!Centres that we have caused by the publication of this advertisement."

The chill worked. An attempt to run a picture of the Smart!Centre in Jonquière, Quebec, closed shortly after Wal-Mart employees voted to unionize, was rejected by the paper.

Aim high, Salmon Arm

But something has happened since the first campaign. Many people are better informed and fully engaged, and new groups of all sorts are forming to combat the threat. Watershed Alliance: The Ecological Response, WA:TER, an environmentally-focused offshoot of CASSSA, is ferociously pursuing environmental issues.

WA:TER has been in constant touch with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans and provincial environmental personnel, effectively pointing out the gross inadequacy of current regulations. A recent WA:TER environmental open house drew 300 people to a church hall, where they were presented with solid scientific data on the vulnerability of the site, its ecological value, and the threats the development poses.

Even more interestingly, one of the three First Nations in the area, which holds land adjacent to the site on the west side of the Salmon River, has now officially come out in opposition despite the offer of a Smart!Centres cash donation to a tribal park.

This new and potent alliance was announced when Chief Judy Wilson appeared at the WA:TER symposium and pledged cooperative action against the development. WA:TER and the band conducted an "environmental walkthrough" of the land in question, with invited local politicians (only three councilors participated), community groups and media personnel.

Another new group, Business owners Against Dumping (BAD), first appeared when they sponsored the Observer ad that prompted the threats of legal action. Now a new group comprised of the major developers in town has formed to oppose the centre, seeing it as destructive to planned, sustainable growth. And a new blog, Aim High Salmon Arm, was launched to provide a forum for thoughtful discussion on the proposed shopping centre and other issues facing the community.

But is the council listening? Smart!Centres has been lobbying them hard. So hard that the council has agreed to hear the second Smart!Centres proposal right in the middle of an Official Community Plan review process, essentially neutering this critical community planning process.

Concerned about possible legal action if they turn down the proposal, formerly critical councilors have reported that the "pro-development" element has threatened to organize their constituency and vote councilors opposing the development out of office. Convinced that there really is a silent majority that approves of the development (a council motion to hold a non-binding referendum on the issue was defeated, in large part because of opposition from Smart!Centres), progressive council members feel vulnerable.

So the struggle goes on. In many ways, this local fight encompasses the same issues and players that are at the heart of so many global conflicts. For most of those involved, opposition to the development has become a moral issue: they see the evils that are playing out globally -- corporate control, greed, a pathological sense of personal entitlement, rampant consumerism, disregard for the environment, disintegrating community, lack of global awareness -- materializing in their own backyard and feel an ethical obligation to do what they can to block a development that, they believe, pushes their community in precisely the wrong direction.

Don Sawyer is an educator, writer and community activist living in Salmon Arm, B.C.

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