According to Remphrey, the pro-development officials decided that the location on the Trans-Canada “was where the shopping centre should be. Mayes cajoled the ALC to release the land. There [was] no public input.” Two local businessmen assembled a parcel that, official designations notwithstanding, sported an old abattoir and a wrecking yard. “It was a relatively unsightly piece of property,” Bootsma recalls. He acknowledges that the city lobbied the ALC: “We probably made a little extra effort.” SmartCentres bought the entire property for $15 million in 2007 and began planning a 50-acre mall (later revised to 38 acres). Next step: Persuade the city to rezone the site.
News of the land deal spread quickly. CASSSA’s modest membership roster swelled to 100, and the organization counted another 800 supporters. The local repertory theatre screened Wal-Mart Nation, a Canadian-made documentary about the “international anti-Wal-Mart movement.” “There are a lot of people in Salmon Arm who just don’t want Walmart and they don’t care where it is,” says Remphrey. “My hope is that these things won’t destroy the downtown. But I fear it.”
When SmartCentres applied to rezone the fallow property in the fall of 2008, the contras were ready for a fight. Over five nights in October, hundreds of residents turned up in the municipal council chamber to urge local politicians to reject the plan. Some citizens scolded them for encouraging sprawl. Others predicted that Walmart would kill the city’s downtown. Many questioned the wisdom of allowing anyone to build a mall on a flood-prone delta.
The outpouring of anger was unprecedented. “When you get that many submissions on one property, there’s a lot of repetition,” says Bootsma with a smirk. A flinty retired carpenter who was elected mayor on a pro-development platform in 2005, Bootsma has little patience for the naysayers. The council split down the middle, and SmartCentres’ application lost on a tie—a galvanizing moment for opponents. The SmartCentres debate dominated the November, 2008, municipal election. Residents elected a mixture of pro and anti councillors, with Bootsma re-elected as mayor.
In the wake of the rejection of the rezoning application, a new community group emerged to take up the cause and shift the debate away from garden-variety NIMBYism.
Warren Bell, a local physician with keen political instincts, established Wetland Alliance: The Ecological Response (WA:TER), a group of scientifically minded residents determined to scrutinize the ecological impact of SmartCentres’ plan. Throughout 2009, WA:TER’s members devoured the technical data SmartCentres had submitted with its application. Drawing from a $50,000 war chest raised through donations, the group commissioned conservation and hydrology studies.
The studies revealed errors and omissions in SmartCentres’ statutory environmental impact assessment. WA:TER’s experts not only confirmed that the company was proposing to build a large mall over a sensitive wetland bisected by a river necessary for salmon spawning; they also revealed that neither the municipality nor the province nor the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans—which share jurisdiction—had noticed the glitches. The City of Salmon Arm didn’t even have a bylaw preventing development on flood plains, a standard planning restriction in most municipalities.
Embarrassed, B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment ordered SmartCentres to revisit its technical assessments and acknowledge the environmental no-go zones. As Salmon Arm’s director of development services Corey Paiement concedes, “We didn’t scrutinize [SmartCentres’ studies] to the level of detail that might be expected or wanted by others.”
Bell made sure no one missed the significance of those regulatory fumbles, commissioning a public opinion poll in November, 2009. With 450 respondents and a 4.6% margin of error, the poll found that while three-quarters of the population supported new shopping malls, the town was evenly split on the question of where SmartCentres had decided to plant its flag. “The issue was and still is the site,” Bell says. “Location, location and location. Really, SmartCentres could have been up and running three years ago if they had chosen a different site.”