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Walmart cometh

The big-box retailer and progressive's worst enemy moves closer to the heart of metro Atlanta

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Carter Joseph thinks nearby vacant car lots were better fits for the big-box retailer. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • Carter Joseph thinks nearby vacant car lots were better fits for the big-box retailer.

Why Walmart remains a retail force — even when its profits are running relatively flat — comes down to the fact it's such a behemoth. It's not just that the company is one of the only retailers willing to build stores with smaller footprints, which are necessary for cramped, urban areas, says Scott Selig, the firm's vice president of acquisitions and development — it also has the cash.

"There are very few developers who can front an $80 to $100 million check to go ahead and develop the property," he says. "It's not easy like it was years ago to get money for any kind of development. You need financially strong players to anchor a tenant. That anchor brings in other people. When it brings in the mass of people, that becomes enticing to other retailers in the country who before might have said, 'You don't have the mass.' Having Walmart gives validity to the project in the eyes of the retail world."

Sixty miles apart, two separate protest movements are pushing back at Selig's plans to bring Walmart closer and closer to where more and more people call home. When news broke late last year that Walmart was linked to a development in downtown Athens, it was akin to announcing that Pepsi planned a museum in downtown Atlanta. Pleas from locals and UGA alums to sign petitions appeared on Facebook and landed in inboxes. In December, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers recorded a song to raise awareness about the proposal with some of Athens' most well-known musicians, including Mike Mills of R.E.M. and John Bell of Widespread Panic. In early February, an angry Walmart opponent filed paperwork to recall Mayor Nancy Denson, who's supporting the proposal. (The initiative went nowhere.) In early March, the city's Occupy movement pitched tents outside city hall demanding open, public meetings, which the mayor and Selig have rebuffed.

There's a good reason why the locals reached for their pitchforks. When downtown stores left Athens in the 1980s and for the new mall five miles from the city center, Athens' musicians and artists claimed the walkable area across the street from North Campus as their own. Out went the department stores, in came the 40 Watt Club, where R.E.M. played its first concert, independent restaurants, and yes, enough bars to destroy one's liver many times over. A gritty, bustling, vibrant downtown with a thriving economy has grown organically.

"People in this state have a love affair with Athens," says Jim Adams, an optician who moved to the college town from Atlanta 30 years ago. "The good ole boys came here. They love to come on football weekends and act like they're still 20 years old and act like idiots. They like it because it's different from where they live. But now we're approaching where we're like a Macon or Tifton. That's not a good thing."

There's long been a problem with downtown Athens — one the people who live in the converted lofts above bars and burrito joints, the new high-rise apartments, the sleepy residential neighborhoods just on its outskirts, or the public housing a few blocks north know all too well: it's a food desert. Despite an abundance of restaurants and a growing culinary scene, visiting a grocery store or supermarket requires a trip by car or bus. (I can vouch for that — I lived downtown during my final year at the University of Georgia.) In addition to boosting tax revenues and providing jobs, the developer has argued (with the gleeful support of the Athens Chamber of Commerce) that Selig's proposal would finally give nearby residents a place to buy fruits and vegetables.

Nothing wrong with that. But the firm's design envisions building a mixed-use retail, restaurant, and residential complex anchored by a 94,000-square-foot retail store — which, by most accounts, will be a Walmart — on what's called the former Armstrong and Dobbs parcel just a few blocks from downtown. (A company spokesman stresses that Walmart has not committed to the site.) The land sits on one of the area's main arteries — which by all accounts is already clogged — into and out of downtown.

Two groups have launched campaigns in Athens: People for a Better Athens, which is more focused on public protest, and Protect Downtown Athens, which is trying to shape Selig's preliminary plans to lessen potential damage on downtown. The latter has focused on the proposal's traffic risks, wonders how the development will align with an adjacent (and expensive) bike trail project, and questions if the Selig plan meshes with the rest of the community. For them, the problems stem not so much from the brand, but the proposal's proximity to and effect on downtown.

Bob Sleppy, the executive director of Athens nonprofit Nuci's Space and one of Protect Downtown Athens' most vocal members, thinks the scale of the proposed development — with nearly the equivalent retail space of all downtown Athens, "you're essentially creating an alternate to downtown" — and potential traffic spell disaster. Even if the proposed tenant were Trader Joe's or Target. "I love Taco Stand," Sleppy says, referring to a popular Mexican restaurant. "Would I like a 94,000-square-foot Taco Stand right there? No."

Selig defends the design and says it has been tweaked to address residents' concerns, which offers little comfort to critics.

"I think they want to build a good project," Sleppy says. "I just don't think they have a good understanding of how it will complement Athens."

At about the same time as the Athens protests, residents of the sleepy neighborhoods outside Decatur learned that Selig planned to redevelop its antiquated Suburban Plaza, replete with a new 149,000-square-foot Supercenter. Opened in 1959, the shopping center is the textbook suburban strip mall — a sea of asphalt parking with retail, including a Big Lots anchor store, set back from the busy streets. The developer plans to bulldoze the retail strip west of Piccadilly Cafeteria, which includes the Last Chance Thrift Store, and build the store closer to the street. Cars would park in an underground garage, which Selig calls a "huge accomplishment" for a mammoth retailer.

The proposed design is the first phase of what could, over the years, become a more walkable shopping center development akin to the Edgewood Retail District.

Dropping the big-box retailer in such a well-populated, high-traffic area could easily convince Emory University professors, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention germ detectives, or any of the thousands of other motorists who use Scott Boulevard each day to stop and pick up laundry detergent or paper towels. According to news reports, so-called "junior anchors" which typically follow Walmarts — a gym, arts supply store, and an electronics retailer — have expressed interest. The developer has even told community members the result would be "Decatur funky." ("Everyone just shook their heads and said, 'What is that?'" said one nearby resident who attended the meeting.)

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