Wal-Mart makes it official

The corporate announcement Thurs?day morning that Wal-Mart plans to build a Neigh?bor?hood Market in Hillsboro has generated continuing conversation via traditional and social media.

The 12,000-foot store, to be located at 605 Orchard Drive in Hillsboro Heights, is expected to open in spring 2015.

?The new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Hillsboro will provide residents with a convenient option for their grocery and pharmacy needs in one central location,? said Nick Berkeley, Wal-Mart?s vice president and regional general manager, said.

?We look forward to working with the city to enhance the business corridor and contribute to Hills?boro?s steadfast economic growth.?

The company stated the store will benefit the community ?by generating additional tax revenue, stimula??ting new investment and providing up to 30 jobs with the opportunity to build a career.?

Concern from the start

But concerns about the store?s actual impact on the local economy surfaced soon after it was reported in March that Ben Hawkins, a land buyer representing a Fortune 500 company, had submitted a proposal to the city about buying 3.7 acres in Hillsboro Heights for a store that would sell fuel, groceries and pharmaceuticals.

Based on similar real estate activity in other smaller towns in Kansas, many speculated from the start that the ?mystery business? was Wal-Mart related.

Until Thursday?s announcement, Mayor Delores Dalke was the only local person who knew the identify of the company, and was contractually obligated to keep the identity confidential.

In May, the issue seemed obsolete when the city received notice from Hawkins that he was withdrawing the purchase offer.

But less than two months later, Hawkins submitted an identical contract. The city council discussed it at its July 15 meeting, then agreed to submit a modified version of the agreement back to the agent as a counter-proposal.

Hawkins returned the city?s version after making most of the essential changes. The council reviewing the proposal at its July 29 meeting, and eventually voted 3-2 on the advice of the city attorney, who said the city face the possibility of a lawsuit because as a public entity cannot legally the city reject a contract if it is substantially similar to previous land contracts it has accepted.

Over the course of events, several local business representatives participated in council discussions, believing they would be negatively affected by a Wal-Mart-related store.

Broader interest

Wal-Mart?s announcement attracted regional media attention. A story on the Wichita Eagle website focused on the concerns of local grocers.

?We haven?t been able to figure out how to fight the big empire,? Dale Franz, co-owner of Dale?s Super?market, was quoted as saying. ?For a town our size, there?s not enough money around to support five places selling groceries.?

Paul Barnes, part of a buyers group that owns Heartland Foods in Hills?boro, was quoted as saying, ?It?s going to make it difficult for hometown businesses to make it here.?

Dalke was quoted as saying that the store would attract the attention of passers-by on U.S. 56, and that the city and county would benefit from local sales tax revenues that go toward capital improvement projects.?

Positive side

In the company news release, Dalke emphasized the significance of having a local economy that would attract Wal-Mart to the community in the first place.

?We feel that this is recognition of the robust business climate that our city offers,? she was quoted as saying.

Late last week, Dalke added, ?I do have real empathy for the businesses that feel threatened. We all know there is a real threat when another business comes in. Everybody feels threatened when they sell something that?s similar, locally.

?We?re not trying to hurt anybody,? she added. ?We?re trying to encourage the future of Hillsboro?and if we hurt local businesses, that wouldn?t be for the betterment of our future.?

Past connection

Dalke said when the city hired the Buxton Co. to conduct an economic study of the area in 2007, Wal-Mart was one of the top businesses cited as fitting the city?s profile for possible recruitment.

?We saw their name, but totally ignored it and did not go out and recruit them because we knew it would threaten our local businesses,? Dalke said. ?But they were on that list that long ago.?

When the offer to buy property came to the city earlier this year, Dalke said the city didn?t have many options.

?We don?t know how you turn somebody down when they meet all the (legal) requirements,? she said. ?We have property that is for sale and is zoned properly?and they came to us, wanted to buy it and have not asked for any kind of considerations.

?They were willing to pay full price for the land, they haven?t asked us to reduce the price or anything else. They just asked, ?How much is it???

Shared concerns

Hillsboro has been the locus of the debate, but the land sale also has generated significant conversation in Marion, including a lengthy discussion at the Sept. 2 city council meeting.

Following Thursday?s announcement, Terry Jones, the city?s economic development director, said, ?I have talked to many business owners and I have yet to hear a positive remark. The concern is high, and with good reason. Many people have seen the effects of Wal-Marts on small towns. The example of Potwin has been used, and it really is a sad story.?

As for his personal feelings about the deal, Jones said, ?I find myself swaying back and forth constantly.

?I get very worried when I hear local residents talking about their weekend run to Wal-Mart for groceries. If they are already driving 45 minutes to get groceries, what is going to stop them from driving 10?

?On the other hand, I have had many conversations with residents that understand the importance of shopping local, so this gives me faith.?