April 25, 2002 11:00 pm

Union County commissioners and La Grande and Island City councilors may be banking the two cities' retail future on one single superstore complex along Island Avenue. In a stagnant environment, where population and family-wage job growth has been minimal at best over the past 30 years, they will be doing existing businesses and our community a great disservice.

IF THE MAJORITY of these political leaders have their way, Wal-Mart could be allowed to build a new box store of historic proportions for this area. We are hearing stories about a 185,000-square-foot building where you can bank, have your hair done, buy your diamonds, eat your breakfast, buy new tires, have your vehicle lubed, oiled and filtered, get your groceries, fill up the tank and even some day buy your next car. Such a mega-store would bring the end to dozens of local retailers and put the hurt on many others.

The reality is that the current 72,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store has made many local retailers become better stewards of their product lines. Most have been able to find a way to be competitive. With a box store of the proposed size, even the best-run retailers in Union County will have a tough time competing.

IT COULD MEAN the end to many of the local and national retailers that currently operate in Union and Wallowa counties. It would certainly mean the death of downtown La Grande as we know it today.

Without growth of both population and good- paying jobs, the county cannot support the retail base that it would need to add a store of that size. If you talk to either Fred Meyer or Target about why they won't come to La Grande, it comes down to the numbers. Those companies need a consumer base of between 60,000 and 100,000 population to justify the investment they make. The closest Fred Meyer or Target is in Boise, Tri-Cities, Bend or The Dalles. The next critical factor is the per capita income. They want annual incomes to be in the $30,000-plus range. Northeast Oregon, at $23,000, doesn't even come close.

WAL-MART APPARENTLY doesn't care about things like that. They are looking at crushing the competition, no matter how it hurts the long-term needs of the community. How else could you explain the reason to go from a basic Wal-Mart store to something the size they are proposing? To make the same kind of return per square foot means only one thing: capturing more and more of the dollars that are spent. We think they'll find that their return on investment in this area will drop dramatically. Too many of our local people already are going to Tri-Cities, Walla Walla or Lewiston on the weekends to shop. They want more than what one single retailer can provide.

Our political leaders have a choice to make concerning the future of La Grande's and Island City's retail business makeup. The size of the current Wal-Mart is adequate for a single retailer to be both powerful and dominant in an area like ours. Keeping the store at its current size would allow smaller retailers to be competitive by providing better service and different product lines. Our local government officials should limit the size of any future box stores.