Anti-Walmart Candidate Dee Wiecher Wants Greater Transparency on Redevelopment
The Ward 2 challenger says the board of aldermen isn't listening to citizens on the Kenrick Plaza redevelopment. The election is Tuesday.
Dee Wiecher, sitting with her white cat, Sheba, in her living room, said she has been knocking on a lot of doors.
“I have been on all the streets of Ward 2, up and down each street,” she said. “I’m doing a lot of listening. That’s what put me into the race. I didn’t feel our current aldermen were listening.”
Wiecher is running for Shrewsbury alderman in Ward 2 against incumbent Greg Lauter. Also vying for the seat is John Odenwald. This election season, the race for Lauter’s seat has become a proxy for the debate over the planned redevelopment of the blighted Kenrick Plaza, which includes the construction of a new Walmart.
Originally from Indiana, Wiecher moved to the St. Louis area in 1970. In 2003, some friends who lived in Shrewsbury decided to move, and having grown to like the area, she jumped at the chance to buy their house.
“I chose Shrewsbury,” she said when asked about her two opponents, who both grew up in the city. “I think communities need new blood. We have new ideas.”
With a doctorate in education from University of Missouri–St. Louis, Wiecher spent 20 years working for the Kirkwood School District. Much of her work there involved writing requests for proposals and grant applications, making her, she said, very familiar with the budgeting process. As further experience, she also cites her volunteer work, both locally and further afield in Argentina, Japan, China and New Orleans.
Now Wiecher is an educational consultant for Scholastic, working with teachers of older, struggling readers. She has two daughters, one of whom lives in Shrewsbury with Wiecher's two grandchildren.
She also lives barely 200 yards from the site of the proposed redevelopment. It was that proposal that first drew her into Shrewsbury politics.
“I’m new to this,” Wiecher said. “I started going (to board of aldermen meetings) when I become dissatisfied with the decision on the plaza. I had no intention of running, but as I saw how decisions were being made, I decided to be a voice for transparency. Honestly, that is the biggest issue for me.”
Wiecher is one of the most vocal of the Shrewsbury residents who opposes the current redevelopment plan and particularly the Walmart it includes. She has frequently addressed Mayor Felicity Buckley and the aldermen at board meetings. Over time, she said, she has grown frustrated with the board’s response to criticism and concerns about the plan.
“You try to talk to them, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s not a concern,’” she said.
Wiecher cited the town hall meeting that was held on the redevelopment, where, she said, the board did not allow residents to speak. She said that the board seems to be making decisions on the project in seclusion, either in closed meetings or in board work sessions, rather than the regular meetings. Until this past month, residents were not allowed to address the board during work sessions. She also said the board should be providing more regular updates on the project.
“When a community is so split like it is, it behooves the board of aldermen to find out why it’s so split,” Wiecher said. “We should be bringing people together.”
The lack of transparency and openness to community input, she said, reflects a board that does not take seriously the opinions opposing the project.
“I think they attribute the opposition to irrationality,” Wiecher said. “It’s never good to assume someone is irrational just because they disagree with you.”
Wiecher said she opposes the plan in part because of the effects the redevelopment would have on her neighborhood. The expanded complex will likely cut off direct access to Watson Road, which she said would, for instance, add 10 minutes to her short drive to church in St. Louis City. On the other hand, if the design makes it possible to access Watson through the Walmart parking lot, shoppers coming from the north would cut through Kenrick Manor and her neighborhood to reach the supercenter.
She said she is concerned about delivery trucks parking at the Walmart in the night, and the increased noise, light and air pollution that such traffic is likely to cause.
“If the board were more open, we would know whether these issues were being addressed,” Wiecher said.
Though she said she believes that something should be done to redevelop the blighted shopping plaza, Wiecher opposes Walmart itself—the world’s largest corporation in 2010. The retailer, she said, has a history of low wages and poor health care for employees, documented mistreatment of women, misrepresentation of products as being of equal value when they are made to lower standards, and hidden price increases through community improvement districts (CIDs) and transportation development districts (TDDs). Walmart has called its critics unrealistic, and it puts up a vigorous defense when sued.
“I believe that choosing Walmart is a moral issue,” she said.
Another worry is what she said was Walmart’s tendency to abandon a community only a few years after building a store there.
“What happens is Walmart comes here, the TIF (tax increment financing) is paid off, and then they go elsewhere,” Wiecher said. She referenced the experience of St. Ann, which she said was left with an empty box building when Walmart left to build a bigger store in a neighboring suburb.
In her research on the issue, Wiecher said she looked into the story of Indianapolis, which has been very successful in revitalizing its core city. One of the key strategies there, she said, was that the local government stopped approving TIFs for retail.
Perhaps the biggest problem Wiecher has with the current redevelopment plan is, she said, the way the TIF will impact the Affton School District. The TIF planned for the developer, GJ Grewe, has been designed to freeze property values at the plaza until it is paid off, which, according to her opponent Lauter, is likely to take 10 to 13 years. The district will have to collect property taxes based on the pre-redevelopment property values. Since the redevelopment will presumably increase the worth of the property, the school district will collect less tax revenue from the shopping plaza than they would had the TIF been designed differently and the property values not been frozen. According to Wiecher, this will cut the district out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wiecher said she is concerned about Shrewsbury’s budget shortfall, but does not believe that the current plan is the best way to deal with the decline in revenues and the resulting deficit this year of $177,201.
“I would like to look for other revenue streams. I think we should look at what other communities are doing,” she said
She added that sacrifice and fiscal belt-tightening are usually necessary during economic downturns.
“I call this (redevelopment) plan a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” Wiecher said.
Wiecher said she doesn’t know if electing her would stop the project, or how much she would be able to influence the result. But she said she plans to bring a greater transparency to the board's activities.
“At the very least, I’ll be able to comment on what’s being voted on,” she said.