3 cities, 3 different senses of Wal-Mart

MISSION, Kan. – Hersh Casey owns a full-service gas station on the main drag of this Kansas City suburb, where employees pump fuel under an American flag and Casey greets customers with a smile, just as he did when he started the business in 1959.

He’s glad the City Council stood up to Wal-Mart, blocking a 200,000-square-foot supercenter.

Bryan Corliss / The Herald

Mission, Kan., gas station owner Hersh Casey says Wal-Mart has ruined communities such as his hometown of Harrison, Ark. He was glad when the Kansas City, Kan., suburb kept the retailer out.

“It was going to destroy the old-style Mission, and all we’d have is Wal-Mart,” Casey said.

Twenty-three miles down Interstate 35, Stewart Fairburn couldn’t be happier to have Wal-Mart coming to the town of Gardner. The business community there hasn’t been able to keep up with the rapid population growth, said Fairburn, Gardner’s city administrator.

“People are already going outside of town to get groceries,” he said.

In between those two communities, in the posh suburbs of Overland Park, Shirley Phillips is concerned that a new Wal-Mart supercenter will draw even more big-box retailers to what has been an idyllic upscale neighborhood.

“The whole area is rapidly falling to heavy commercial,” she said. “In years to come, it’ll be unlivable out here.”

Three cities with three different Wal-Mart experiences, all in suburban Johnson County, smack-dab in the middle of America.

If Wal-Mart’s moves here in the past few years teach anything, Fairburn said, it’s this:

“Each area is unique. Each area has its own needs. Each area has to evaluate it. The same pattern doesn’t work for everyone.”

Mission: When it rains

Seattle Seahawks fans may remember the night of Oct. 4, 1998. The Hawks were in Kansas City to play the Chiefs when the sky opened up and dumped 5 inches of rain.

That night, regional planners learned that all their flood maps were wrong, said Mike Scanlon Mission’s city administrator. That night is part of the reason why Mission does not have a Wal-Mart.

Mission is one of six suburbs tucked into a corner formed by Kansas City, Kan., on the north and Kansas City, Mo., to the east. The main drag is Johnson Drive, a four-lane road that parallels Rock Creek.

For a four-block stretch, Johnson Drive is lined with small shops and family businesses.

“Johnson Drive, to me, is Mayberry RFD,” said Becky Mosely, who owns Edgeville Interiors. “The guy over there calls me ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Honey’ when I take my car in,” she said, referring to Casey.

At the edge of downtown is the two-story Mission Mall, an aging 250,000-square-foot retail center that is slowly failing.

“People like it,” Scanlon said, “because when you go there it’s easy to find a parking spot.”

Last year, Wal-Mart developers approached the city with a plan to knock down the mall and build a supercenter. There were several problems.

For starters, city consultants had just praised the hometown feel of Johnson Drive. Another Kansas City suburb plans to spend $125 million to build what Mission already has, they noted.

Then there was the flooding. Rock Creek overflowed in the big rain of ‘98, forming a temporary lake in the mall’s parking lot. Federal rules blocked Mission from allowing new construction until it solved that problem, so Wal-Mart couldn’t move forward right away.

And residents didn’t like the idea, Scanlon said.

“Wal-Mart makes towns not grow,” said Casey, who took part in an anti-Wal-Mart petition drive. “I’d probably survive myself, but it wouldn’t be the same town without a hardware store and drugstore.”

Wal-Mart has its place, Mosely added. “It’s just not two blocks from my shop.”

2003 population estimate was 487,000 (about three-quarters the population of Snohomish County). Largest city is Overland Park, at 162,000.

* Major employer is Sprint Corp., which has 17,000 employees in the county and its headquarters in Overland Park. The company is moving its executive headquarters to Virginia following its merger with Nextel Communications Inc. and says layoffs are likely.

* Other companies include Farmers Insurance Group and Applebee’s International, both based in Overland Park.

* Median home value, 2004: $216,300 (Snohomish County, $259,000)

* Per-capita income, 2000 Census: $30,900 (Snohomish County, $23,400)

* Home to nine Wal-Mart stores, with a 10th set to open next year. The list includes three supercenters, and three Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, which are 40,000-square-foot grocery stores the company has opened in the Midwest.

– Herald staff research

It wasn’t that opponents didn’t want a Wal-Mart store, said Kate Michaelis, vice president of the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce. It was that no one wanted it downtown.

In the end, the City Council decided the best way to preserve downtown Mission was to allow stores no larger than 40,000 square feet – about the size of a large supermarket.

That and the flood zone delays prompted Wal-Mart to buy a similarly sized mall across the state line in Missouri, where it plans to build the new supercenter.

Now Mission has a dilemma, Scanlon said. The mall continues to decline, pulling city sales taxes down with it, and Mission has had to raise property taxes to make up the difference.

Gardner: Nowhere to shop

Gardner, Kan., was once the last stop for pioneers taking the Oregon and Santa Fe trails to the West.

Today, huge changes are coming down U.S. 56, the old pioneer trail now covered in concrete. Gardner is one of the last places with affordable houses in the metropolitan Kansas City area, and young families are on the move.

“The majority of people have been here less than six or seven years,” said Fairburn, the city administrator.

The growth has been explosive. The Census Bureau counted about 3,800 people in 1990. Fifteen years later, there are close to 16,000 residents, and Gardner is on track to hit 25,000 before 2010.

The growth has overwhelmed the few businesses in town, said Greg Kindle, president of the Southwest Johnson County Economic Development Council.

“There isn’t anywhere to shop and eat,” he said.

Most new residents drive six miles to Olathe, taking their sales-tax dollars with them and frustrating officials trying to pay for new streets and schools. Those leaders see Wal-Mart as the solution to several problems.

The new Wal-Mart store is going in over an old sewage-treatment lagoon that state officials want removed. At the same time, the new Wal-Mart promises to increase the city’s sales tax revenue by more than 50 percent.

Gardner officials were so eager to get the store, they offered to put up $5.7 million to remove the lagoon and improve streets near the site. That upfront money will be paid back out of the property taxes Wal-Mart will pay.

“It’s something very positive for the town, whatever your views on Wal-Mart are,” Fairburn said.

There were bumps along the way. The site plan had to be reconfigured to get the store out from under the flight path of a nearby airport. That involved “a lot of hassling, a lot of politicking,” Kindle said.

There also was opposition from people such as Linda Meisinger, co-owner of The Dolphin Song store downtown.

“They don’t like what I had to say because I had a moral issue about it,” she said. “I just have a real problem with Wal-Mart. How can anybody not?”

But Fairburn said concerns about Wal-Mart’s global business practices go beyond the scope of one small Kansas town.

“Do I apply those standards to every other business in town?” he asked. “Some of those are beyond local control.”

Construction is under way at the Wal-Mart site, and the store should open by the end of the year. That’s attracting the attention of even more retail developers.

“At this point, I can’t keep up with the calls,” Kindle said. “It has definitely changed the morale of the community.”

Overland Park: ‘Prettiest’

Wal-Mart has a big presence in the U.S. heartland. It has captured 21.8 percent of the metro Kansas City grocery market, according to TradeDimensions International.

Overland Park, Johnson County’s largest city, has five Wal-Mart stores, including two of the company’s Neighborhood Markets, 40,000-square-foot grocery-only outlets.

The newest store is a supercenter that opened last year at the southern edge of the city, but only after a long fight. Those who led the battle say they’re not anti-Wal-Mart.

“We don’t hate Wal-Mart,” said Jim Hall. “It’s the only stock I have that’s done anything.”

What they objected to was the size of the project.

“This is the largest big box in the city of Overland Park,” said Hall’s wife, Sandy. “That’s what hurts so much.”

The area is in flux. Bulldozers are carving up pastures, and houses are sprouting up in cornfields. The Halls and two of their neighbors, Roger and Shirley Phillips, live in one of the few established neighborhoods, filled with stately homes on large lots.

The land the Wal-Mart sits on was zoned for retail use in 1996, said Bob Lindeblad, a senior city planner for Overland Park. The owner got approval for a 202,000-square-foot, multistore shopping village.

So when Wal-Mart sought permission to build a 202,000-square-foot supercenter on the site, there was no reason to oppose it, Lindeblad said. “Who cares if it’s one tenant or three tenants?”

The neighbors did.

A neighborhood shopping center is one thing, but this was something else, Shirley Phillips said. “The intensity of the development wasn’t appropriate to the neighborhood,” she added.

The biggest fear was that a big Wal-Mart would attract other big-box retailers, turning the intersection into a retail hub.

The fight lasted two years. Opponents challenged Wal-Mart’s traffic studies. Wal-Mart hired a Virginia call center to drum up support under the guise of the Kansas Taxpayers Network.

In the meantime, Lindeblad was pushing Wal-Mart on the design. “If they put in their regular gray and blue cheap store, that doesn’t do anything for the landscape,” he said.

The result is an attractive store with a brick-and-stone exterior. “We were kind of proud how it came out,” Lindeblad said.

That’s the “only good thing” to come out of their efforts, Phillips said. “We have probably one of the prettiest Wal-Marts we have ever seen.”

Once the store opened, traffic increased, Sandy Hall said. “There was a wreck a week.”

The store uses huge searchlights at night to attract attention, the Halls said, and trash blows out of the parking lot and into nearby yards.

As feared, another developer has proposed a large retail development across the street from the Wal-Mart on land designated for housing.

“The developers use master plans as toilet paper,” Phillips said.

The Halls want to sell their house and move, but would-be buyers tell them, “You’re too close to the road,” Sandy Hall said.

On a recent weekday, the superstore’s parking lot was dotted with Land Rovers and Cadillac Escalades. Inside, there were the usual Wal-Mart yellow smiley faces, greeters in blue vests and low prices on clothing and appliances.

There was also the unexpected – a tank filled with live lobster selling for $13.86 a pound.

Wal-Mart succeeds, Lindeblad said, because it gives people products they want at low prices. It was successful in building this store, he said, because it was willing to work with the community.

“They were excellent to work with,” Lindeblad said. “They did almost everything we required of them.”

Sitting on her sofa with the Halls surrounded by photos and maps and traffic studies, Phillips could not disagree more.

It was a nasty time, she said. “We’re all sick of dealing with it. Looking at it again is like looking back on a bad divorce.”

Reporter Bryan Corliss: 425-339-3454 or corliss@ heraldnet.com.

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