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Watertown Walmart opponents to erect anti-big box billboard, organize rally

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  April 24, 2012 06:13 PM

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Former Watertown Town Council candidate Mike Mandel designed this billboard with his wife protesting Walmart's potential presence in Watertown. The billboard will be posted for two months starting in May at the intersection of Arsenal and Irving Streets.

Mike Mandel might not have won his bid for the Watertown Town Council last fall, but he still stands firmly on his anti-Walmart platform, as he and other opponents of the chain are posting a billboard objecting to the retailer's planned move into town.

Mandel also said opponents will gather May 5 for a protest rally at the billboard location on Arsenal Street.

Walmart signed a 20-year lease last August for the 7.8 acre property that used to house GE Ionics located at Irving and Arsenal Streets, with the option to renew in increments of five years up to another 30 years, according to lease terms.

Mandel and other local residents are upset by the plan, citing increased traffic, noise and sound pollution, property devaluation and threats to small business owners as main issues.

Watertown Planning Board director Steven Magoon said Walmart has not submitted any documentation to the town yet, nor have they discussed any time frame to submit a proposal.

"There’s nothing on the schedule yet, but they’re still doing due diligence," said a Walmart representative.

Walmart spokesperson Steven Restivo could not be reached for comment, but he has suggested shoppers at the store will more than outnumber angry local residents.

“The louder voices in these debates don’t necessarily represent the majority opinion, and that fact is made clear every time we open a new store as thousands of residents, none of whom attended council meetings or wrote letters to the editor, show support by just shopping the store,” he said in a previous Globe article.

Mandel said he and other opponents raised over $4,500 in two weeks for the 10-foot by 22-foot billboard, which will be posted for two months beginning in May on Arsenal Street, just east of Irving Street .

Mandel, a professional artist, said he and his wife created the billboard to portray what could go into the site if Walmart were to back out of the lease - such as a mixed use, high-technology development, he said.

Mandel said over 100 people contributed financially to the billboard, the majority of whom live in Watertown.

He said that although Walmart representatives promised to hold public meetings and submit a proposal last fall, the company has failed to make any movement.

"It might be their strategy to wait out the community and let the issue subside from people’s consciousness," Mandel said. "Instead, we want to keep it in the public’s imagination, which is why we created the billboard to suggest what ought to be there."

Mandel said the protest will be held from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m at the billboard location.

"We got $4,500 in two weeks primarily from people in this community, so I think people will show up to support this," Mandel said.

"Every aspect of this site is not what we need in downtown Watertown," Mandel said, adding that the company places stores in depressed economies to appeal to low-income residents.

The potential Walmart site is located close to Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown High School, and Watertown Square, a mainly residential area far away from the built-up retail hub of Arsenal Mall and Watertown Mall, Mandel said in a previous Boston Globe article.

“It’s just a huge development which is out of scale,” Mandel said previously.

Restivo has said that he thinks residents would appreciate access to affordable goods and that the Watertown branch would create between 150 and 200 jobs.

He had said most Walmart jobs nationwide pay $13.20 per hour, not including management.

And while residents criticize the store for possibly adding traffic to an already busy Watertown Square, Restivo has said store officials would look into the issue, as it was in the store's best interest for customers to travel easily to shop.

Restivo had said that before Walmart submits their proposal sometime this year, store officials will meet with worried citizens to receive feedback and calm any fears.

“We want to better understand the unique challenges that Watertown is facing, and together develop solutions,” Restivo said previously. “So our intent is to listen, answer lots of questions, and share information about the company, because what we’re finding is when people learn the facts, the more they see value in bringing the store to their neighborhood.”

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jreiss.globe@gmail.com

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