Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

"What big box effect?"

Remember the big battle over Wal-Mart in Chelan earlier this year? Well, Wal-Mart has been continuously open since January. Has the town been "blighted" as opponents predicted? A July 26 Wenatchee World story has the details:
CHELAN — A steady flow of traffic spills down Woodin Avenue toward Lake Chelan, where the water sparkles in the sun on this Friday before the Fourth of July.

Only a few parking spots on Chelan’s main street are available. People in shorts and flip-flops admire the flower baskets exploding with purple, yellow and red. Clothes on a rack outside Novedades Lupita sway gently in the wind, and lawn ornaments on Swim World’s corner spin like pinwheels.

Nearly six months after Wal-Mart opened with enough floor space to fit nearly three football fields, downtown Chelan is alive and vibrant. Many store owners say they’re doing just fine, although some say it’s a little too soon to judge.

It’s the summer tourism season, the three-month period when many businesses in Chelan do the vast majority of their annual sales.

The sidewalks are teeming with people. Some visitors, such as Mary Ellen Ragan of Spanaway and Sharon Schall of Tacoma, say they’ve already shopped at the new Wal-Mart. But that didn’t keep them from shopping downtown on this beautiful summer day.

“I like the little shops,” says Schall. “This is such a resorty type of area, I think a lot of people will stay downtown.”

Other visitors are regular Wal-Mart shoppers, even if they work downtown.

Standing outside the Chelan Eagles hall, Rosa Wyssen says, “I work here, and I live in Pateros, and I love that Wal-Mart is there. I know a lot of people in Pateros that are very glad.”

Wyssen says she hasn’t heard any lingering animosity over Wal-Mart’s arrival from her patrons at the Eagles in recent months. But before it opened, “I heard a lot of discussion at the bar about Wal-Mart, and most people I heard were all for it,” she says.

Now, whenever the topic of Wal-Mart comes up, it’s either a comment from someone who bought something there, or from someone who is headed there to go shopping, she says.

But several tourists who were stopped on the street say they weren’t even aware that Chelan has a Wal-Mart.

There’s a reason for that, residents and business owners say. Many have heard rumors that the new Wal-Mart isn’t doing as well as it expected. Some point to its location — tucked up above the road into town from the north, where it misses the majority of traffic that comes to Chelan from Wenatchee.

“They’re detached from town and sort of hard to see,” says Stephen Connolly, a cashier at Golden Florins Bear Foods, a downtown health food store. This store, with a loyal customer base and not much in common with the retail giant, didn’t expect to lose business, and it hasn’t, Connolly says.

But even businesses concerned about the new store with everything from soup to nuts and bolts to potting soil aren’t complaining too loudly.

“A lot of people don’t want to navigate a 162,000-square-foot store,” says Tony Race, owner of the Chelan Red Apple Market. He’s happy that all of his employees stayed with him, so he’s not facing the same pinch to find workers as are some businesses in town. As for sales, he says, “It hit us,” but “we’re comfortable with where we’ve landed. I’m not as worried today as I was back in November.”

Agustin Paloalto, manager at Manson’s Red Apple Market, thinks shoppers uplake are even less likely to drive the 20-mile round trip to go grocery shopping, especially in the summer heat and traffic.

“When they opened, it did something to us, probably for the first three days,” he says. “But after that, everything went back to normal. I don’t think people want to go that far to pick up some milk.”

But reports are not all rosy.

“We made a lot of department changes getting ready for them to come to town. But I knew they would affect our sales, and they have,” says John Sweeden, owner of the Lakeview Variety Store in Chelan.

He says he’s added a lot of Dollar Store-type merchandise to compensate, and opened a second store in Grand Coulee to add to his business base. “Hopefully, we’ll survive,” he says.

Other businesses are in a wait-and-see mode. Pat Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Hardware, says it’s a little early to know what the impact will be to his store. Business has been fine, but unseasonably cold or hot weather can also impact a business like his, so he wouldn’t want to compare this year with last year, he adds.

Tim Flood, a Windermere real estate agent, thinks it will take longer than a year to know the true impact.

Businesses looking for summer workers are probably most affected, after Wal-Mart scooped up the locals who were unemployed during the slow winter season, Flood says.

The real estate agent says he was ambivalent about Wal-Mart coming to town.

“I don’t think the store is going gangbusters. Right now, all there is out there is Wal-Mart,” he says, adding, “Because it’s out of town, out of sight and out of the way, it hasn’t been a big-box blight.”

But, he predicts, the real impacts will probably be known in a few years, as stores from the downtown area move out to the Apple Blossom Center, where Wal-Mart is located, or as new big-box stores come in, competing directly with local hardware stores, restaurants and other businesses.

Wal-Mart a part of the larger issue: growth

Chelan Mayor Jay Witherbee says he’s tried to keep tabs on how local businesses are doing since Wal-Mart opened.

“The overwhelming majority are telling me that they’re doing fine,” he says. And statistics agree. In the first five months of this year, he says, the city’s sales taxes revenues are up more than 33 percent over last year.

The biggest chunk of that came from construction, he adds, but general merchandise is in second place.

When Wal-Mart first announced it was coming to town two years ago, Witherbee counted the downtown buildings that were vacant, and there were seven. “Today there’s one,” he says. “The downtown is vibrant. To say otherwise would be very misleading.”

He figures that the new Starbucks store, which opened just before Memorial Day, is having a bigger impact on local espresso shops than Wal-Mart is having on grocers and other retailers.

The mayor, who is not running for a second term this November, has openly welcomed Wal-Mart.

The three candidates who filed to take his place as mayor next year say Wal-Mart isn’t really an issue in the upcoming election.

But some say Wal-Mart, and the way the building permit was handled, is part of the concern over fast-paced growth and development that led so many candidates to seek a position in city government, while surrounding cities and towns have few contenders.

Of five open seats on the Chelan City Council this fall, four are contested, including three candidates for mayor, four for one council position, and two for two other council spots.

“Any time you get a large change — with orchards being taken out and everyone seemingly wanting to own a piece of our pretty little valley — you’re going to have contention,” says Stan Morse, one of four people vying for Chelan City Council Pos. 5.

The way Wal-Mart was handled is similar to the way other issues have been handled, Morse says.

Few will contest the need to rezone the property and make Wal-Mart legal, he says. Otherwise the corporate giant could turn around and sue the city for the cost of the building and future profits because it issued the building permit.

“I think it’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately, we had to spend all that money and staff time on it. How much of our resources have been spent because we didn’t get it right the first time?” he asks.

Mayoral candidate Bob Goedde became a part of the Wal-Mart debate when he wrote up a survey and left it at a few local businesses asking, simply, whether people were in favor or against the new store opening.

“Eighteen-hundred people took part in that. That’s more than the number of people who voted in the last election,” he quips. The final result, he says, was 1,730 in favor and 64 against.

But now that it’s open, Goedde says, Wal-Mart won’t be an issue in this election.

“I think it’s pretty well over,” he says of the Wal-Mart issue. And he doesn’t think there are any residual bad feelings over it.

He says he never believed that Wal-Mart would cut into local retail sales. “You know what? People here can’t afford $15 for a T-shirt,” he says, so they didn’t shop downtown anyway. “Other than two or three businesses, we don’t have anything that Wal-Mart competes with.”

Scott McKellar, who is also running for mayor, says Wal-Mart was unnecessarily divisive. McKellar says he would have handled the issue differently.

Hiring an arbitrator or mediator could have saved a bundle on legal expenses and could have resolved the issue sooner, he says. [Riiiiight - tf]

He says a group he was involved with to find a common vision for the Chelan Valley helped heal some of the tension and brought people back together.

“Obviously, Wal-Mart is here to stay, and will serve a retail need in the community and provide additional income for the city,” he adds.

Councilwoman Jenae Pape-Miller, who is running for mayor, says the Wal-Mart issue is one of many land use issues that citizens have questioned.

“Whether it’s Wal-Mart or the parking lot or the golf course. People aren’t getting the answers,” she says.

But she, too, finds a positive from the experience.

“That’s one thing Wal-Mart has done. It’s gotten people off of the couch and back on the street talking about things,” she muses.
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