Welcome Walmart

Finally, my big chance to see what the fuss is all about

At Knoxville's Community Development Corporation on Monday will be a meeting about the prospective redevelopment of the Fulton Bellows site, where local developers are offering an unusual plan to build a Walmart and a Publix grocery on what appears to be an imaginative and urban-friendly sort of plan. I'm following the story with more than usual interest, not just because I'm interested in the site, though I am, or that I'm interested in unusual new-urbanist sorts of plans, though I am. I'm interested in large part just because I'm curious about Walmart.

For years, I told people I'd been inside a Walmart only once in my life, offering my vivid memory of that huge place with the friendly greeters and an unbelievable amount of well-organized stuff. It was on Chapman Highway, on a Saturday way back, maybe 20 years ago. It was such a vivid memory I shared it often. I told my Walmart story for all those years until recently, when my wife corrected me. It was a Lowe's.

It was embarrassing to learn that my only Walmart experience turns out to be a sham. But am I the last American who's never set foot inside a Walmart?

It's not that I've deliberately avoided Walmarts, even though there might seem to be manifold political reasons to. Liberals, you'd think, would avoid them because they've allegedly promoted sprawl and environmental blight, and don't allow unions. Conservatives, you'd think, would avoid them because most of what they sell is manufactured in the People's Republic of China, the biggest Communist country in the world, and presumably every time you shop there, you're making another cheerful vote for China's global dominance. But no, most everybody loves Walmart anyway. They love it like they love their mama, regardless of her politics.

Maybe I should love Walmart, too. I've never been to a Walmart just because there's never been one handy whenever I need whatever it is they sell. I've never lived within six or seven miles of a Walmart, and honestly couldn't even offer directions to one. I have a learning disability when it comes to Mariah Carey songs, prompts on computer screens, cars manufactured after 1980, and chain stores. It's not that I disapprove of them. I just don't notice them going by.

I'm not a big shopper anyway. Groceries, mostly, and I am retail-savvy enough to have gathered that Walmart is not one of the dozen closest groceries to my house. I buy some hardware now and then, but never enough to justify a long drive for bargains. Except for some underwear I found at Star Sales, I haven't bought any clothes in 25 years. I won't live long enough to wear out all the clothes I own, all hand-me-downs and Christmas gifts. I do some gift shopping myself. My loved ones are well aware that gifts from me are mainly books and booze, not purchases suggesting a trip to Walmart.

Still, I'm curious. This Walmart/Publix combo seems to be at least a partial answer to downtown's retail lacks: hardware, electronics, appliances, simple clothing, pharmacy, etc. It fills a niche local entrepreneurs haven't bothered with. If the site's not literally downtown, it's a 20-minute stroll from it, partially assisted by a free trolley.

And it's heartening to know that for once Walmart's not going to build a big cheap box in a sea of asphalt. It looks like a good plan, thoughtful and even pedestrian-friendly. Local developers are talking about building a large factory-like building on the site: a "distinctive multistory structure will revive the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century factory."

But one irony's hard to avoid. Just six years ago, there was a distinctive multistory structure that actually was a turn-of-the-century factory. Built mostly of solid brick, with huge heart-pine timbers and broad planks making up the floor, the Fulton plant was sturdy enough to hold hundreds of tons of machinery. It was a genuinely historic factory building, associated with the invention of a useful device originally called the sylphon, which enabled some parts of the 20th century, like car air conditioners, to happen. And here they manufactured, among gauges and other things, key components for the very first effective depth charges. But by the 21st century, the Fulton plant was owned by a multinational corporation. Despite interest from local developers in the old building and pleas, in this paper at least, for a public discussion, somebody, perhaps in the corporate headquarters overseas, hit the delete key and razed the place.

Don't blame that loss on the current developers, who didn't get involved in the place until years later. The appeal of the site, beside the University of Tennessee and right off the Alcoa Highway/Interstate 40 connector, is obvious, but there are going to be traffic issues. As the city moves forward with its admirable effort to restrict traffic on Cumberland Avenue, offering Neyland Drive as a roundabout alternative, maybe there should be some improvements to other alternatives.

With the north side of downtown growing so rapidly, I've been wondering about how those folks will easily get west, assuming they prefer to avoid the interstate to drive two or three miles. Neyland, the preferred alternative to Cumberland, is out of their way.

One potential northern connection might be more direct to the new development than Neyland. Off Sutherland Avenue, a highway underpass makes room for a short dead-end road called Donald Lee Derrickson Avenue. (It's named for the pastor of the only business on that avenue, the Greater First Church of God in Christ.)

Donald Lee Derrickson Avenue appears to lead directly to another dead-end, Dale Avenue. In between are no significant buildings, but some off-limits property, apparently owned by the Dow plant, that doesn't appear to be getting used much. Maybe they could be talked out of it.

Reconnecting those long-severed streets could cut the Western-University corner and save a half-mile or so of driving. Here and elsewhere, reconnecting some 19th-century city streets could solve some 21st-century problems.