Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

"Downtown and Wal-Mart: A perfect match?"

No, not downtown Pullman. Downtown Tacoma. This column from Dan Voelpel appeared in Sunday's Tacoma News-Tribune. Pullman Wal-Mart opponents and supporters need to read it carefully.

Ask folks to identify two things downtown Tacoma needs and you’ll usually get the same answers – some big-name retail and a grocery store. What if both came in one big box?

A box called Wal-Mart.

Imagine the barbs from those uppity Seattle pundits.

But what if I told you scouts for the world’s largest retailer have requested traffic counts at multiple downtown sites for Wal-Mart’s newest format – a multi-story, inner-city supercenter, with its own parking, woven into the urban landscape?

Jennifer Holder, Wal-Mart’s Seattle-based public affairs manager, declined to discuss specific plans, potential sites or demographic conditions that precipitate location decisions, but …

“We definitely have an interest in Tacoma,” Holder confirmed.

Does the prospect of a Wal-Mart in downtown Tacoma strike terror in your heart, tick you off, make you salivate at the opportunity or cause you to yawn?

Let’s look at White Plains, N.Y. – the best real-life example of what could happen in Tacoma.

Sears abandoned its hulking department store next door to historic White Plains City Hall for a shopping mall and its concrete shell sat vacant for years at Second and Main streets, the heart of downtown. A downtown that had started to undergo a bit of a renaissance with a new hotel, some luxury condominiums and apartments, but no grocery store. Sound familiar?

A New Jersey developer, Ivy Equities, partnered with an investment company, Barrow Street Capital, to buy the shell and an adjacent parking garage in 2003.

A year later, in a news release, came this revelation:

“(New York, N.Y-based) Staubach Retail announces that Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has leased 186,000 square feet at Shoppes on Main, a new retail center being developed at 275 Main St. in White Plains, New York.”

“When they were first proposing it, there was a lot of opposition,” said Richard Liebson, a reporter for The Journal News in White Plains. “People were skeptical and cynical.”

At City Hall and in the entrenched downtown merchant community, the first conversations started with, “How can we stop Wal-Mart?”

People were concerned about what it would do to our businesses,” said Melissa Lopez, coordinator of economic development for the mayor’s office. “I mean it’s right next to City Hall, and we’re right smack in the middle of downtown.”

A Wal-Mart in a downtown core didn’t compute in minds of White Plainsians. Wasn’t Wal-Mart a more suburban conqueror?

Yes, but downtown White Plains gave Wal-Mart executives the chance to show off its latest brainstorm, a new configuration that had potential to expand the retailer’s domain to inner-cities. They called it, perhaps sardonically, “a stacked deck.”

In White Plains that meant: groceries on the ground floor, general merchandise on the second floor, levels of parking above that, a newfangled escalator that carries shopping carts and a downtown-looking exterior in a shared building with other retailers and restaurants.

And yet.

Even in the days before Wal-Mart opened last July 19, some locals railed against it with picket signs and protest lines.

And then.

“It’s always crowded, and it’s been very well received,” reporter Liebson said.

What about the merchants’ collective fear that Wal-Mart’s discount smiley-face pricing would suck away customers?

The opposite happened.

“We’ve actually received very good feedback from our merchants,” Lopez said. “Our downtown business improvement district says Wal-Mart has brought a lot of foot traffic downtown.

What Wal-Mart may or may not do in downtown Tacoma remains undisclosed – for now.

The “stacked decks are looked at as an option in each individual market” and could include underground parking with office space and condominiums above the store and a mix of other retailers, Wal-Mart’s Holder said.

“How we pick any of our store markets is confidential, and we don’t disclose any of it,” she said.

Downtown Tacoma and Wal-Mart. The White Plains experience would foreshadow a match made in heaven. But my gut says it would face a heckuva battle. Except from the Seattle pundits.
I wish Tacoma good luck, but I imagine whatever "grassroots" group springs up in opposition will be represented by union hired-guns Bricklin Newman Dold. Opening a Wal-Mart anywhere in the Watermelon State is getting to be as difficult as building a nuclear reactor.

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