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Mr. SmartCentres, Mitch Goldhar, gives Canadians what they want Add to ...

In 1989, while he was still hustling his discount-mall concept, Goldhar got a call from an American named Doug Sperber, who was looking for Canadian locations for a retailer and wanted to chat. During a subsequent meeting, Goldhar laid out his scathing indictment of Canadian retail. Sperber was all ears. “We had a very lively discussion,” he recalls. “Then he left. He didn’t tell me who he was.”

A few months later, Sperber phoned again, explaining he was Walmart’s real estate director, and that he wanted to recruit Goldhar to lock up Canadian locations for Sam’s Club, Walmart’s warehouse-club division. Goldhar, just 28 years old and with only a couple of strip plazas to his name (and those via the family business), was gobsmacked. They did the deal on a handshake.

For over a year, Goldhar criss-crossed the country on a quest for locations. With the property market in free fall, he had little difficulty optioning sites. “I was working seven days a week, doing it all myself, secretly. No one knew.”

But then Sperber called to say Walmart had changed its mind. It would go to Mexico instead of Canada. Goldhar didn’t feel betrayed, but he was still put out. “I’d found meaning, bringing fair prices to average Canadians. It sounds hokey, but that’s how I felt.” After Sperber thanked him for his efforts, Goldhar couldn’t restrain himself: “‘I don’t care,’” he recalls blurting out. “‘I’m going to keep working on it.’”

On spec, Goldhar continued to option properties and leave messages on Sperber’s voice mail. The Walmart executive never responded. And so it went for a year, until Sperber finally called to say the company had reconsidered. Goldhar claims he persisted because he always believed that Walmart would change its mind. “It made sense.” So much so that in 1994, Walmart sealed a blockbuster deal with Woolworth’s to convert 122 Canadian Woolco outlets into Walmarts, with Goldhar on board as the advance man and local development partner.

Walmart’s Canadian invasion had begun.

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In 2005, Salmon Arm was abuzz with rumours that Walmart was coming to town. Several locals set up the Committee for a Strong Sustainable Salmon Arm, rented a basement room beneath a local store, and set to work protecting the town from sprawl. The group helped block a large supermarket project, but suffered a bit of a mission crisis. “When I started,” former board member Bill Remphrey, a spry retired University of Manitoba science professor, recalled, “we just wanted to be an organization that was against everything.” But CASSSA soon broadened its scope, looking to not just oppose development but to promote environmentally friendly development—smart growth.

City officials had identified a need for large-form-at retail in town, even though Salmon Arm had two smaller shopping plazas, which dated to the 1970s. Local legend has it that several local politicians, including Colin Mayes (who was mayor; he’s now the area’s Conservative MP) and Marty Bootsma (who was a city councillor; now he’s mayor), took matters into their own hands, renting a minibus and driving around the area, scouting potential locations. They homed in on a swath of land abutting the Salmon River delta, situated between two native reserves. It sat on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway, three kilometres west of downtown. The politicians set to courting SmartCentres.

Bootsma, however, says that the tour was the work of the city’s Economic Development Society and the site on the Trans-Canada actually came to the city’s attention when council was informed of an application from its owners to change its designation as agricultural land.

Either way, the application brought B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission into the picture. The commission, set up by an NDP provincial government in the mid-1970s to save farmland, oversees 11.6 million acres of B.C.’s best arable land, and has a mandate to ensure this resource isn’t depleted. Owners can apply to the ALC to remove their land from the Agricultural Land Reserve, but the agency has to ensure the net supply of B.C. farmland remains unchanged overall.

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