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Gwinnett Co vs. Wal Mart

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Guest donaltopablo

Empty Wal-Marts leave an angry feeling


Denise Nye wants Wal-Mart to stick with an existing building in Lawrenceville rather than build another three miles away.



With three Supercenters under construction and a fourth in the works, the super-sizing of Wal-Mart is in full swing around Gwinnett County.

But a nagging byproduct of Wal-Mart's success -- the empty box stores sometimes left in its wake -- has sparked a backlash in the county seat of Lawrenceville. Once loyal Wal-Mart shoppers such as Denise Nye have banded together by the hundreds in opposition to a Supercenter that, if it is approved tonight by the Lawrenceville City Council, would go up three miles from a shuttered Wal-Mart on Ga. 20.

"Why can't they open up our old Wal-Mart?" said Nye, a 32-year-old whose home is stocked with a generation of Wal-Mart purchases, from the socks on her feet to the plastic phone in her hand. "I loved that Wal-Mart."

This is no NIMBY movement of anti-Wal-Mart crusaders trying to preserve a Vermont vista or small-town Georgia charm. The rallying cry in Lawrenceville smacks of NIMBYA -- Not In My Back Yard Again. Residents say the empty stores make their neighborhoods look bad and create a potential breeding ground for crime.

Wal-Mart's aggressive entry into the grocery market has fueled the transition to Supercenters that, at more than 200,000 square feet, offer groceries, a deli and aisle upon aisle of household items. Wal-Mart has nearly tripled its share of metro Atlanta's grocery market in the past two years with the opening of eight Supercenters. Its 14 percent share trails only Kroger and Publix.

As Wal-Mart's Supercenters spread across the country, communities are having to digest a retail twist: The same company opening up the largest store in town sometimes owns the biggest empty building as well.

Wal-Mart officials point out that the vacancies are often just temporary. Other business move in. Cities convert the buildings into municipal complexes. Some of the big boxes are broken up into a series of smaller stores.

"It doesn't happen overnight," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Daphne Moore. "What I think is key is our track record."

1,000 signatures

To fight the proposed Supercenter in Lawrenceville, the opposition has collected more than 1,000 signatures, which they plan to present to the City Council today. David Rodriguez, a leader of the movement, said there's no reason to think Wal-Mart won't change its format again in the future and leave Lawrenceville with another empty shell.

"When we're not the new place to move in the Atlanta area, what's to stop them from picking up, leaving and going to the latest, greatest place?" he said.

Wal-Mart counters that every one of the 1,397 Supercenters opened in the United States is still open.

Peachtree City, taking note of a vacant Wal-Mart building in nearby Fayetteville, launched a pre-emptive strike to stave off the arrival of any more giant stores.

A city ordinance prohibits stores larger than 32,000 square feet. That's about one-sixth the size of a Supercenter. If several tenants are combined under one roof, under the ordinance they can't exceed 80,000 square feet.

"We've had inquiries from all over the United States wanting copies of this," Peachtree City Mayor Steve Brown said.

Peachtree City's ordinance didn't apply to one Wal-Mart that already was planned in the city, and Target has taken the city to court in an attempt to build a large store there.

In Lawrenceville, residents are looking at two empty Wal-Marts, one in their city and one down the road in Snellville.

Nye said the proposed Supercenter would probably force a nearby Ingle's out of business as well as more stores around the darkened Wal-Mart near her house.

That means more eyesores that could breed crime, she said.

On one recent Friday night, as she and her husband drove past the hulking shell left behind by Wal-Mart, a dozen "hoodlums" were leaning against the battleship-gray facade. "They were standing around yelling at cars," she said. "I just think [Wal-Mart] needs to be held accountable for these empty stores."

Wal-Mart has hired an Atlanta-based brokerage firm to market those two stores, Wal-Mart's Moore said.

Moore said two additional stores scheduled to close next year near new Supercenters in Gwinnett won't stay empty for long. Wal-Mart is in negotiations to sell its store off Pleasant Hill Road near Lilburn. A tenant is interested in leasing half the Wal-Mart just over the county line on State Bridge Road in Fulton County. And in a nod to neighborhood activists who traveled all the way to the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., the chain is converting an existing Wal-Mart into a Supercenter near Stone Mountain rather than build a new one at a new site.

Fewer potential tenants

Finding an appropriate retailer to fill Wal-Mart's footprint isn't so easy. Because shopping at Wal-Mart is a "destination," their stores don't have to be located on highly visible land that other retailers need to attract drive-by traffic, said Keith Pierce, a senior analyst with Sandy Springs-based Dorey Market Analysis Group.

The old Wal-Mart in Lawrenceville is a case in point. A discount furniture operation lasted just a few months in the far-flung corner of the shopping center that once bustled with Wal-Mart shoppers.

Even when older box stores are leased, the tenants often aren't as big a draw as a Wal-Mart, Target or Kmart, Pierce said.

"You can end up with lower-end, closeout, price-saver kind of stores," he said.

Part of the problem is a shrinking list of name-brand large retailers, said Tom Wheeler, a shopping center manager based at Gwinnett Place.

"We've all seen the troubles of Kmart," he said. "Macy's and Lord & Taylor are closing stores. Your list of viable large retailers is shrinking."

Gwinnett County, stung by its first wave of empty big-box stores, passed its own ordinance last year intended to stimulate redevelopment of half-empty shopping centers. The county has dangled several incentives in front of developers willing to build on already-paved property. They can blend businesses with townhomes and apartments. And the rules permit housing densities of up to 32 units per acre -- nearly triple the county's limit on undeveloped land.

So far, no investor has taken the bait.

Some of the anti-Supercenter crowd in Lawrenceville would love to see a Target open in the old Wal-Mart. But the mega-retailer, like any other business, doesn't normally lease to a competitor.

'Prettiest' in state

To appease the opposition, Wal-Mart's developer has committed to building "the prettiest Wal-Mart in the state," said Jim Price, vice president of WRS, which has built more than 100 Wal-Marts.

During the initial hearing on the proposal last month, Price laid out some alluring figures for the City Council to consider: a $25 million store on the tax rolls; 555 jobs; $100 million in annual sales; $350,000 in city taxes; $6 million in county taxes.

Councilman Rick Johnson said those numbers are dazzling, but a 24-hour Supercenter is just too intense a use for land that backs up to residential neighborhoods.

The store would surely force the new Ingle's grocery store out of business across the street, he said. And it could suck the wind out of Lawrenceville's fledgling effort to revitalize downtown with shops, lofts and restaurants.

"I was here as a little boy and I don't know the last time Lawrenceville has stood up and said we don't want this in our city," Johnson said. "It just tickles me pink."

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Shuttered Wal-Mart buildings are a national problem. This company offers low prices, but they also employ illegal aliens to avoid minimum wage and benefits, ruin small downtowns, and take character away from places that have it. Profit is OK but not at the cost of the towns Wal-Mart locates in.

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Guest donaltopablo

It really is getting out of hand. I hate Wal Mart stores and everything they bring to neighborhoods and they have no sense of character for sure.

One of these new Gwinnett county locations is being built only a couple of miles from my house, and I'm dreading it.

Although I'm not sure Wal Marts bring crime as one mentioned in the article...

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