From: Tony Adams, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Published March 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Planners Vote Against Wal-Mart in Columbus, Georgia

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Plans to develop a Wal-Mart Supercenter in the Midland area of Columbus met with resistance at Wednesday's Planning Advisory Commission meeting.


After a number of residents voiced concerns over possible traffic congestion and the effects of urban sprawl, commission members voted 4-3 against recommending the rezoning of 54 acres for the 300,000-square-foot shopping center.


"I think money can solve the traffic problems, but there's bigger problems than that. If we don't address those here -- and there's no one here (from Wal-Mart) prepared to address those -- I wonder how in good conscience we can move to approve," said commission member Karl Douglass, who voted against the project.


Others casting "no" votes were Joe Alexander, Bob Crane and PAC chairman Derrick Shields. Those voting for approval were Bradford Dodds, Sharon Jamison and Shep Mullin.


The vote is non-binding for the city, with the 10-member Columbus Council ultimately deciding whether or not the project can proceed.


Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Wolford Development Inc. is seeking to have the Gateway Road property upon which the Wal-Mart store would be built rezoned from a manufacturing and apartment/office classification to commercial use.


Will Johnson, Columbus zoning administrator, said the city is still awaiting a traffic study from Atlanta-based Jacoby Development Inc. The company is planning its own 300,000-square-foot shopping center on 54 acres of land that borders J.R. Allen Parkway and Flat Rock and Jamesson roads. About 39 acres of the land must be rezoned from manufacturing to commercial use.


Jacoby's project received PAC approval Jan. 5. The developer was told to submit a traffic study that covers the regional impact of both shopping centers, Johnson said. It is expected within a week, he said.


The projects will be reviewed by the Columbus Planning Division for its recommendation of approval or denial to council.


Neither project has been scheduled to appear before council, Johnson said.


"We're not going to let anything go until we've got everything we need from both parties," he said. "These two cases are pretty big cases, so I think we're going to take our time and make sure we've got all of our ducks in a row. We've heard the folks out there, and once we get all of the information we think we need, we'll make a recommendation."


There now have been two public hearings for the Wal-Mart Supercenter site. One Monday night at Midland Middle School attracted about 165 residents, virtually all in opposition to the project. The PAC meeting drew about a dozen residents, most of whom spoke out against the need for a Wal-Mart in the city's panhandle.


The three-hour session began with Scott Williamson, executive vice president with Wolford Development Inc., going over details of the project. It is to be located on Gateway Road near the intersection of J.R. Allen Parkway and Manchester Expressway.


The 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter, weighing in at nearly 204,000 square feet, would anchor the 300,000- to 350,000-square-foot shopping center.


Wolford would fill out the rest of the development with an assortment of retail stores and smaller shops. Outparcel tenants would include a 50-room motel, a bank, a tire store with four service bays, a 10-pump service station and convenience store, and a fast-food restaurant.


Williamson said the shopping center would create 500 jobs and generate an estimated $95 million in retail sales its first year. That would translate to $2.7 million in sales-tax revenue for the city and Muscogee County School District combined, he said.


None of those figures impressed Liberty Hall resident Rebecca Shepard, who attended both public meetings clutching 6-month-old daughter, Robin Hill, in her arms. Shepard believes the Gateway Road Wal-Mart will doom other grocery stores, restaurants and shops in the area. That would simply shift tax money and jobs from one employer to another, she said.


Shepard also said it would be foolish to expect Wal-Mart not to close one or both of its non-supercenters on Airport Thruway and Buena Vista Road to make way for the new store. Williamson insists the Gateway Road Wal-Mart will be an "additional" store and not a replacement in the market.


"I was at (Airport Thruway) Wal-Mart the other day," Shepard said.


"The shelves are stocked, the cashiers are standing out in front of the aisles asking you to come down. It's not an overrun store. We don't have so much demand for the stuff that Wal-Mart sells that we need a fourth store."


Anne King, a Midtown Columbus resident, said she fears Wal-Mart closings would contribute to commercial blight, leaving more large structures empty in the heart of the city. Wal-Mart tends to hold on to its closed stores so that competitors can't move in, she said.


"There are a lot of properties standing empty right now in need of redevelopment, and I think what we're doing is going out to the perimeters of the county," she said. "This is just the prime definition of sprawl."


Deputy City Manager Richard Bishop explained any closed stores would remain on the property tax rolls, although owners can appeal for a lower rate if they think the value has gone down. He also said the city's code enforcement would make sure the properties are maintained.


Traffic congestion in the J.R. Allen Parkway and Manchester Expressway area is a concern of residents. Wolford Development's traffic study has proposed adding three traffic signals and several lanes to handle the 9,000 vehicles a day the Wal-Mart shopping center is expected to add to the current 13,500-vehicle count in the area.


"We do feel like we presented a traffic plan that improved the existing situation," Williamson said.


Steve Ballas and Alton Duncan, both Midland-area residents and generally in favor of the development, said traffic is a major concern of theirs. They believe a new intersection should be built connecting Gateway Road directly to Manchester Expressway. Ron Hamlett, city traffic engineer, said the Georgia Department of Transportation already has shot that idea down.


"I travel this road every day," Ballas said. "Granted there is a lot of traffic, and I think it will create more traffic. But it would be more convenient for me to go to that super Wal-Mart and shop."


PAC member Dodds also expressed support for the Gateway Road development, at one point saying he believes residents were targeting the project simply because it is Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.


"In this case, Wal-Mart has made a business decision . . . that this site would be a good location for a profitable Wal-Mart Supercenter," he said. "It's not our place as a quasi-governmental body to make that decision for Wal-Mart. We cannot say, 'No, you need to not build a Wal-Mart Supercenter in this town.' It's their money, it's their risk that they're running. And consumers will make the ultimate decision whether this shopping center will either succeed or fail."


Wolford Development executive Williamson appeared undeterred after not getting losing PAC's stamp of approval. He doesn't anticipate the project being delayed. Plans call for starting construction later this year and opening the Wal-Mart Supercenter within 16 to 18 months.


"I always want to win, but I don't think this is anything that's insurmountable," he said. "We're looking forward to moving through the process and working with the planning staff and city council to address some of the issues that were raised today."


WHAT'S NEXT?


The Columbus Planning Division now is waiting for a traffic study from Atlanta-based Jacoby Development Inc. The company is planning to build a 300,000-square-foot shopping center bordering J.R. Allen Parkway, Flat Rock and Jamesson roads.


The Jacoby study must include data from the impact of the 300,000-square-foot Gateway Road shopping center being planned by Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Wolford Development Inc. Wolford already has submitted a traffic plan for its own project to the city. It calls for three additional signals and more turning lanes in the area.


City zoning administrator Will Johnson expects to receive the Jacoby study within a week. The planning division then will review it and make its own recommendation to Columbus Council, which will consider both developers' requests to rezone property for commercial use.


No date has been set yet for the cases to go before council. Johnson said both cases likely will go before council at the same time.


To see more of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.ledger-enquirer.com. Copyright (c) 2005, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, Ga. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.


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