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Wal-Mart proposal ‘out of the blue’

DEMOPOLIS – The proposal by Wal-Mart to construct a Supercenter just west of its present location on U.S Highway 80 West seemed to come “out of the blue” for Mayor Austin Caldwell.

Caldwell’s been making what he terms “overtures” to the company for 10 years, and although the company had expressed a little more interest in the past six months, he wasn’t prepared to see a plat drawing come before the planning commission.

“… the next thing we knew, they had optioned a piece of property,” Caldwell said.

Dan Henry and John Walters, both engineers contracted by the retailer to design different phases of the project, were on hand Tuesday to explain rough plat drawings of what will become a Supercenter. They were supporting a request by local developer Bryan Whitfield Compton to rezone the property from residential use to commercial use.

“(Former Chamber President) Kathy Leverett and I both made overtures to the people who would make those decisions in Arkansas and Birmingham over the past 10 years, we were always told it was a ‘numbers’ problem,” he said.

Caldwell said Wal-Mart officials had said before the company would consider such a move, its current store must reach a certain level of profitability.

“The numbers must have been where they wanted,” he said.

The Planning Commission approved the rezoning request, sending it to the city council for final action, a step that won’t come before its July 15 meeting due to legal notice requirements, said Councilman Thomas O. Moore, who, like Caldwell, also sits on the planning commission.

Moore was one of three planning commissioners to vote against the rezoning request.

“I mainly voted against it because of how (Henry) handled the presentation and was unwilling to even go to the table with local businessmen who have big investments in their own properties (near the proposed site),” he said. “Nobody’s against the Supercenter. I think it would be positive for Demopolis and the whole area.”

A minor confrontation between businessmen who own property in front of the proposed site and Henry over access to the Supercenter’s parking lot left a sour taste in Moore’s mouth.

“It’s great to get this thing, but we have to look out for who’s already there,” Moore said. “I think they should have at least made an effort to consider the property owners’ request more fully,” he said.

Moore isn’t the only member who felt that way. Commissioner Wyatt Williams echoed Moore’s sentiments.

“We’re not against Wal-Mart, but we would have like to have seen a little better handling of that situation,” he said.

Wal-Mart corporate officials did not immediately comment on the proposed Supercenter.

Henry told commissioners that the proposed store would be 158,000 square-feet and would include a retail strip development of about 32,000 square-feet.

According the company’s web site, Supercenters average between 100,000 and 220,000 square feet of retail space. Depending on size and customer needs, they employ between 200 and 550 associates, or employees..

Supercenters feature 36 general merchandise departments including an apparel department with accessories, a fine jewelry department, a lawn&garden center, a health&beauty aids department, electronics and a pharmacy department. In addition, grocery areas generally feature a bakery, delicatessen, frozen food section, meat&dairy and fresh produce departments. Supercenters also often include Wal-Mart Specialty Shops such as Vision Center, Tire&Lube Express and One-Hour Photo Processing.

Both Caldwell and Jay Shows, president of the Demopolis Area Chamber of Commerce and the city’s lead economic developer through the Industrial Developer Board, say the Supercenter would likely generate higher sales for the company and increase employment.

“I would expect it would increase employment opportunities for the citizens of our area because a Supercenter will hire at least twice the number of associates as a regular Wal-Mart,” Shows said. “I would think that even computing what I would call ‘displacement sales,’ it would add a substantial additional sales tax revenue to the city.”