WALDOBORO, Maine - The sea-scented streets of downtown Waldoboro look more like a theme-park rendition of old-time New England than a battleground. There's a general store behind an awning, a small pharmacy beneath a neon sign, and a generations-old lumberyard down the way.
But these family businesses are not tourist-tailored relics in mid-coast Maine. They're rallying symbols for a passionate movement that is fighting to preserve the community fabric and the state's traditional ambience, and keep Wal-Mart out of one of New England's most distinctive regions.
A bumper sticker in Damariscotta, Maine, summed up the feelings of the Wal-Mart opponents. Last month the town’s voters approved establishing a cap on the size of retail stores, voting 747 to 456, with about 70 percent turnout. (Fred J. Fields for the Boston Globe)
It is an escalating fight that has scored recent victories for big-box foes in three towns between Bath and Rockland, and activists are battling to add five more communities to their goal of a ''box-free" coastal zone. Damariscotta, Newcastle, and Nobleboro have voted since March to ban or place a moratorium on new retail stores greater than 35,000 square feet. Thomaston, Edgecomb, and Waldoboro have votes scheduled on size caps within the next several weeks. Opposition to big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, whose supercenters typically are 186,000 square feet -- and sell everything from food to clothes to tools to prescription drugs -- also is stirring in Warren and Wiscasset.
''The very thing I loved about this place was being threatened," said Jenny Mayher, a Harvard-educated, stay-at-home mother who moved to Maine within the last several years and helped organize a grass-roots drive to preempt Wal-Mart's plans to build in the picturesque village of Damariscotta. ''It would have forced local businesses to either close or scale back."
''We didn't want to sit around and worry about it," said Eleanor Kinney, a co-organizer, who like Mayher is a recent transplant and stay-at-home mother with a degree from Yale. ''We wanted to get engaged."
To Mayher and others in the ''Our Town" movement that they helped spread along the coast, the battle against Wal-Mart is nothing less than an Armageddon-like fight to preserve the villages and small businesses that make mid-coast Maine so appealing to tourists, transplants, and lifelong residents.
''This is just a rare thing," said Mayher, referring to the nearby shops in downtown Damariscotta, which was the first battleground for the movement. ''You don't just see tourists buying T-shirts. You see daily commerce happening."
Mayher and Kinney continue to act as advisers, they said, in the ''Our Town" movement in Waldoboro and some other affected communities that are strung along the peninsula-punctuated coast.
Despite the size cap in Damariscotta, Wal-Mart's interest in the town has not been extinguished. Wal-Mart spokesman Christopher Buchanan said in an e-mail last week that the company has not abandoned its hopes to build in the community.
''We continue to weigh our options," Buchanan said.
To Wal-Mart officials and many residents who struggle to make a living here, big-box expansion is seen as an economic boon that combines cheaper goods with hundreds of new jobs. Already, Wal-Mart has built 22 stores in Maine since arriving Down East in the early 1990s, including stores in Brunswick, Rockland, and Augusta that fringe the mid-coast region.
To Wal-Mart's opponents, who contend the stores destroy local businesses and offer only jobs with low pay and poor benefits, 22 stores is more than enough. But to its supporters, hometown convenience is preferable to driving 25 miles to another Wal-Mart at $3 a gallon for fuel. And any job is better than none, they say.
''All we have around here is an overpriced hardware store" and a grocery, said Mike Simmons, 35, of Waldoboro, standing near a 1968 Volkswagen convertible that he is restoring at a Route 1 auto shop. ''The way I look at it is you need competition. It makes everybody grow."
His comments were echoed by Brian Bowman, 40, a state Department of Transportation supervisor who said the town of 4,900 people must find ways to keep young people from leaving. A Wal-Mart, Bowman said, will help business expand instead of siphoning away customers and money.
''Shoppers would say, 'Let's stop to get gas. Let's stop to get something to eat,' " Bowman said. His wife, Judie, nodded and added: ''My feeling is that Waldoboro would grow."
Wal-Mart officials denied that the corporation has any pending plans to build in Waldoboro, but veterans of the battle in Damariscotta are concerned that Waldoboro's large tracts of undeveloped land make an appetizing target. But no matter where the company builds, Buchanan said, Wal-Mart is committed to working out differences with local residents, rather than planning secretly, as Mayher and Kinney contend.
''If a community has sincere concerns about the development of our store, we need to pay attention to that and be as flexible as we can," Buchanan said. ''If there is another agenda in play -- arbitrary laws and regulations that are simply designed to keep us from introducing supercenters in a market -- then we will strongly oppose this on behalf of local customers who deserve the option of everyday low prices.
''No one is forcing consumers to shop at Wal-Mart, but some governments are trying to prevent them from doing so."
In Damariscotta, Mayher said, the size-cap movement was hatched on the basis of persistent rumors that Wal-Mart had acquired an option to buy property for a supercenter. Those rumors gained momentum when a Portland lawyer began attending meetings of the town's land-use committee, but would not divulge the identity of her client. Finally, after some progress toward a 35,000-square-foot cap, Wal-Mart acknowledged in November that the corporation had acquired the option. It was also disclosed last year that the attorney was hired by Wal-Mart.
On March 21, the cap was approved by a lopsided tally of 747 to 456, in which about 70 percent of Damariscotta voters participated. Waldoboro is scheduled to vote on a 35,000-square-foot cap on June 13.
The Rev. Robert Jewett, an Episcopal priest who is part of the Our Town movement in Waldoboro, characterized his activism in spiritual terms.
''As soon as it became apparent that big-box development was going to threaten the entire mid-coast area, we wanted to do our part to protect the people of Waldoboro," said Jewett, whose wife sells upscale kitchenware in a store beside their 19th-century farmhouse.
''I honestly felt called" to fight against ''the economic injustices that the big-box system imposes on common people," Jewett said.
But nearby, at the auto shop, Simmons was asked what would happen to Waldoboro's jobs if Wal-Mart moved into town.
Simmons, his work clothes streaked with oil, answered with a slight smile. ''What's so good about the jobs around here?" he asked.
© 2006 Boston Globe