Wal-Mart, the Soldotna bridge and a great conspiracy

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, February 11, 2007

No one likes a good conspiracy theory better than I do, except of course for folks in Kasilof ... and folks in Nikiski ... and in Sterling. You get the picture.

Well, I’ve been thinking about something that feeds right into the heart of the central Kenai Peninsula’s two cities — “sister cities” as they are called by politicians when they’re playing well together.

(When they’re in that competitive posture they never seem to want to acknowledge, they refer to each other as “the other municipality.”)

My theory has to do with the world’s largest retailer.

I’m still divided as to whether I like Wal-Mart. Of course, I never scoff at saving a nickel. If I can find a multipack of toilet tissue at Wal-Mart for 37 cents cheaper than I can find it on the peninsula, Wal-Mart’s my store ... if I happen to be driving by.

In the few years I’ve lived here, I have come to realize that if I watch the sales and clip coupons for items available in Soldotna and Kenai, I can do as well or better on most of the low-price stuff Wal-Mart sells without having to take out a loan for a tankful of gas to get me to Anchorage.

If I’m up there, fine. I’ll shop there.

Some might jump to the conclusion that I’m uninformed and insensitive — unaware of Wal-Mart’s purported ill treatment of its vendors, its practice of keeping employees’ hours just low enough that they don’t qualify for health insurance benefits or its alleged delays in paying building contractors to the point some of their smaller subcontractors are forced into bankruptcy.

No, I’ve heard most of that stuff. I’ve read lots of stories people have sent my way, and there does not seem to be a dearth of those tales on the Internet.

I also know that when companies get so rich financially, power tends to follow.

What little roofing subcontractor doesn’t clamor to get in a bid when he or she hears Wal-Mart is planning a superstore? What dill pickle processor doesn’t see visions of dollar signs flashing before their eyes when Wal-Mart says, “We want to feature your pickles — in jumbo jars — in our bazillion stores around the globe?”

But that’s moving somewhat away from my conspiracy theory, though the power thing is at its heart.

Everyone should be aware by now that some day, within four years or so, Wal-Mart’s obnoxious little low-price sphere will be bouncing around Marathon Road in Kenai.

Since Kmart left several years ago, however, shoppers from points east and south have stopped venturing up the Kenai Spur Highway in quest of the blue light specials or any other merchandise.

They’ve stayed in Soldotna, unless lured by the orange deals of Home Depot.

Now, Wal-Mart must recapture the shopping masses and redirect the traffic flow toward the terminus of the Kenai River.

Therein lies the answer — the river.

If people can’t cross the river in Soldotna, coming from Homer, Anchor Point and Kasilof, they have to head up Kalifornsky Beach Road, turn on Bridge Access and double back on the Spur — right past Wal-Mart.

Likewise, if people from Sterling, Cooper Landing and the like are planning to make a trip to Ninilchik or Homer, they would have to head up the Spur Highway and loop around — right past the new Wal-Mart.

With the kind of power a multibazillion dollar firm wields, wouldn’t it be reasonable to suspect they could lobby state governments for relief? And would it not be just as likely they could get bridge builders to idle their giant Tonka crane, even at the risk of paying large late penalties for not getting a bridge completed as agreed by contract? Perhaps the government could even be talked into making the penalties go away.

There it is.

If somehow — perhaps by not having a bridge across the river in Soldotna — shoppers could be reprogrammed back to driving up along the Spur Highway for a year or two or four, by the time the new store opens its doors, those same shoppers will be so habituated to the route, it won’t take so much as a turning lane to get them into the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Of course, that’s just a theory.

Phil Hermanek is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. he can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.

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