Wal-Mart is looking at opening a 213,000-square-foot "Supercenter" on Chapman Highway, right at the city limits. It is just down the road from Wal-Mart's current Chapman Highway store, and some people are disturbed by Wal-Mart's practice of abandoning old shopping centers.
"We have no objection to Wal-Mart," says Tom Boyd, whose property borders the proposed site. "But why are you moving? When they move from where they are, they kill another shopping center."
The developer of the property, Chip Slagle, acquired the rights to two pieces of property for the shopping center, which will be a total of 230,000 square feet. One of them is currently zoned C-4 commercial, the other residential. Slagle wants the city to rezone all the land to C-4. The Metropolitan Planning Commission has recommended the land be rezoned C-6—
a commercial zoning that requires site plan review, says Norman Whitaker of the MPC. "C-6 zoning would give us more input into review of the site," he says. "If it gets to C-4 we don't see it again."
Council will consider the rezoning request at its Feb. 5 meeting. Neighbors have some concerns about how wetlands and a creek in the area will be affected, and would like to maintain a natural buffer between the plaza and their homes. Those concerns are being negotiated with the developer.
But a larger issue may be Wal-Mart's practice of building a big box store, only to abandon it 10 to 15 years later. There are several other stores that share Wal-Mart's current shopping center, including a Food Lion grocery store. Without the biggest tenant, the plaza as a whole could suffer (especially since Wal-Mart Supercenters typically include an entire grocery store section, which would be competing with the Food Lion).
"If they lose the Wal-Mart traffic, that could be enough to make them close the store," says Councilman Joe Hultquist, who represents the 1st District. "If those anchors are gone, that's pretty much the end of that shopping center. And of course the city loses tax revenue."
Wal-Mart could retain its lease on the old site, and Hultquist says he wonders how aggressively Wal-Mart would market the space to prospective tenants.
"Wal-Mart is very careful on subleasing their properties. They want to make sure it's not someone who will compete with them in any way. For a building that size, it really cuts down on who they're leasing to. If they choose not to lease it, that doesn't bode well for the shopping center."
A Wal-Mart spokesperson did not return a call to Metro Pulse. The chain is known for restricting the information it releases to the public—everything from plans for future stores to where its clothes are manufactured.
Whitaker says Wal-Mart is not the only culprit when it comes to abandoning shopping centers. Chapman Highway in particular has been plagued with empty shopping and grocery plazas. "There's a real pattern in the retail industry of that happening. They're basically warehouse structures. You can probably think of several yourself that have been abandoned or converted to other uses," Whitaker says. "If you've driven [Chapman Highway] recently, there's two or three unused shopping centers."
But given the size of Wal-Mart's stores and its aggressive expansion strategy, it may be the most notable offender.
Hultquist says he'd like the city to try to deal with the problem.
"I'm not so sure we're in a position to do anything quickly enough to affect this proposal," he says. "The kinds of stipulations, controls, and development policies that are possible, that's what we need to look at. I don't know that that will have an impact on what we do here."