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Walmart Puts Once-Tough Town to the Test

by Laurie Roberts – Sept. 19, 2009
The Arizona Republic

 

We stand in Dean Phillips’ front yard, admiring the view. Up ahead, against a crystal blue sky, is Black Mountain and beyond it, Continental. Just to the left on the horizon I catch sight of Elephant Butte and I smile, as I always do when I see the old guy.

He brings back memories of the glory days, when a scrappy town, against all odds, waged war against that most ferocious of opponents: a developer with dollar signs in his eyes. I will always remember this town, how its residents came together and mobilized a state to do what many said couldn't be done, how they saved a magical place called Spur Cross Ranch from the indignity of becoming just another marvel of master planning.

Cave Creek was small but certain of what was important and what was patently unacceptable.

I think about those days as I look at Elephant Butte, rising from Spur Cross, and I glance over at Phillips. I’m not sure what he sees as we stand there looking to the horizon, but it clearly isn’t flashbacks to this tiny town’s finest hour.

Phillips is in the fight of his life – two actually.

“We’re just devastated,” he said. “We want to sell our house and get out of Cave Creek because of the stench of this.”

Phillips lives in one of five houses along Olesen Road. It’s a dirt stretch at the south end of town, a few blocks below Carefree Highway.

Six months ago, his house faced open desert, 20 acres that would one day, according to the town’s plan, become 20 houses.

Then Walmart pronounced it as the perfect place for a 24-hour Supercenter.

Not long ago, a big box would have been unthinkable in Cave Creek. This was the anti-Phoenix, the raucous desert outpost where anything goes, except for massive commercial development that would turn their particular piece of paradise into a clone of everywhere else.

The turning point came a decade ago, when it let Home Depot know it wasn’t welcome at the corner of Cave Creek Road and Carefree Highway.

So the store went a few blocks west to Phoenix, leaving Cave Creek residents with the intrusion of a big box but none of its big sales-tax receipts.

Then came Carefree, bowing to Lowe’s, and the die was cast. Carefree Highway would become another Bell Road.

But Walmart, it seems, isn’t interested in being on Cave Creek’s commercially zoned stretch of Carefree Highway. It wants to be on Cave Creek Road, specifically on residential land smack across a dirt road from Dean Phillips and his neighbors.

In late March, Walmart asked the town to make a major change to its general plan so that the Supercenter could be built. In mid-June, the Town Council – up to its eyeballs in debt and hit hard by the economic crash – jumped at the idea. Phillips and his neighbors mounted a referendum, in the hope that voters might intervene and stop this thing on Nov 3.

Town officials say they’re sorry for what they’re doing to Phillips and his neighbors but say it’s inevitable that the land, just south of the commercially zoned corner of Cave Creek and Carefree, will go commercial given growth. If it doesn’t, they say, Walmart will jump to Phoenix.

Bottom line: It comes down to money. This town of 5,000 is $67 million in debt – the cost of buying a pair of private water companies and building a sewage-treatment plant – and beginning in 2011, it’ll need upwards of $6 million a year to pay that off.

“It is not without empathy for the citizens in that area that I support the general-plan amendment/rezoning. Nor the lingering presence of grief,” Mayor Vince Francia told me. “But as mayor, I not only represent a citizen or a neighborhood but an entire community, its future and its welfare.”

Francia says it is right that the issue be decided by voters. I agree. It’s just a shame that it’s not a fair fight.

Walmart donated $45,000 to pay for Cave Creek’s film and arts festival and annual fireworks display this summer. By late August, it had dumped $23,000 into this campaign.

Phillips’ group, by contrast, had raised just $1,900. He knows he’s facing a tough fight. Far tougher, in fact, than most people know. Phillips has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Every day, he battles illness from this, his second round of chemotherapy. He doesn’t relish also having to battle the world’s largest retailer.

But right is right, he says. And wrong? Well, we’ll see.

There are a lot of reasons to bow to Walmart’s wishes, to throw out the city’s long-standing plan and plop a Supercenter at Phillips’ front door. It would bring desperately needed money to the town, and if Cave Creek balks, Walmart will likely waltz into the waiting arms of another cash-hungry city. In these economic times – heck, let’s face it, in any times – the Walmarts of the world rule.

In fact, I can only think of one reason not to approve the plan: the people of Olesen Road. Once upon a time, they would have been reason enough to stand tough. In those days, Cave Creek was certain of what was important.

And what was patently unacceptable.