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2008-03-29
Lewiston, ME. The “Writing Was On The Wal” For Superstore Pull-Out

Another community has seen its proposed Wal-Mart superstore go up in smoke. This one was all approved and ready to roll. But corporate headquarters in Arkansas tossed a match on the project. There are 3 Wal-Mart supercenters within 20 miles of Lewiston, Maine, including the supercenter in Auburn, Maine less than two miles away. That kind of saturation may have been the real reason why Wal-Mart announced this week that Lewison joins the long list of scrubbed superstore projects across the country. The saturation of nearby Wal-Marts, plus the fact that Lewison has lost roughly 10% of its population since 1990, made a Lewiston supercenter a dim prospect for the Arkansas retailer. Lewiston has lost more than 4,000 people since 1990, and its population based today stands at 35,700 and falling. The proposed site for this supercenter would have been a stone's throw from Wal-Mart's massive distribution center in Lewiston, which was built with public subsidies. On February 18, 2002, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was given 61 acres of land -- assessed at $300,600 -- for free; relocated and expanded sewer lines, $1 million; a new sand and gravel pit for $940,000; a new shed for sand and gravel, $800,000; a commercial subdivision plan, $45,000; water and sewer fee reimbursements, $18,300; property tax reimbursements, $5.8 million. The total comes to nearly $9 million from the city. The tax incremental financing deal came to 25 pages, plus a 65 page memo of agreement. Add to that another $8.4 million in state welfare: a "Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement" program to reimburse Wal-Mart over 12 years as much as $7.8 million on all personal property taxes; $1.5 million for road relocations; $180,000 in training money, and as much as $348,750 in rebated state income tax that comes from its workers' payroll witholdings. After all that welfare, you would think that Lewiston officials would feel tapped out. But the Wal-Mart superstore crash in Lewiston was seen as a major letdown by city officials. "We're certainly disappointed. That seems to be the overriding reaction," Lincoln Jeffers, economic development director for the city, told the Lewiston Sun Journal. Jeffers has been working on this site for three years. Wal-Mart made public its proposal to build a 190,000 s.f. superstore in January of 2007, as part of a 75-acre retail zone near Exit 80 of Interstate 95, the Maine Turnpike. A second parcel at the site is owned by another developer. "The writing was on the wall, but we kept trying to resurrect the project and move it forward," Jeffers admitted. The Sun Journal described Wal-Mart's Leaving Lewiston as "a shift in corporate thinking that derailed the project." A Wal-Mart spokesman said Wal-Mart is now focusing on upgrading and renovating existing stores in the United States and reserving much of its new construction in international markets. The retailer said its decision to leave Lewiston was made last week. "This was purely a strategic move," Wal-Mart said. The retailer looked at the budget for the site, and said it would have cost too much. City officials said the expense of traffic upgrades alone would have come to $2 million or more. Jeffers said the superstore project had cleared all of its permitting hurdles. He began to get nervous when he knew all Wal-Mart had to do was ask for their building permit. "They weren't as responsive as I'd have liked," he told the newspaper. The city obliged Wal-Mart by at every turn: rezoned the land; approved a subdivision amendment; and discontinued some streets. The state had signed off on the environmental permits. Wal-Mart literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Despite the loss of population in Lewiston, Wal-Mart said the trade area still looked good to them. "Our real estate department (decided) to take a closer look at projects that were not under construction," the company's spokesman said. "It's not specific to Lewiston in any way. There's still an opportunity down the road for other stores, but the overall costs have to be lower and the potential greater to our return on investment."

What you can do: One of the major criticisms leveled at Wal-Mart by Wall Street analysts has been the company's propensity to eat into its own "same store sales." The Auburn-Lewiston market would generally be seen as one trade area. Auburn has also lost more than 1,100 people since 1990, and the combined population in Auburn-Lewiston is around 59,000 -- just about enough to support one major supercenter -- but definitely not two. The only surprise here is: what took Wal-Mart so long to pull out? The shifting of corporate gears took place more than 9 months ago, and this project made little sense for a long time. Readers are urged to email Lewiston's Mayor Larry Gilbert at gilbertmayor@aol.com, with the following message: "Mayor Gilbert, Now that Wal-Mart has left you at the altar, Lewiston has an opportunity to prevent huge suburban sprawl from dominating your town. As you have pointed out, 85% of all businesses in Maine are made up of small businesses. These large national chain stores will come and go, based on their own internal financial needs -- leaving Lewiston because of some corporate decision beyond your influence. You already have a Wal-Mart superstore 2 miles away in Auburn. Instead of focusing the energies of your economic development specialist on big retailers, shift gears and look to manufacturing, high tech, or other industries that create jobs to raise wages in Lewiston, not lower them. Incubate small businesses -- don't destroy them. Instead of being dejected that Wal-Mart has left, you should be relieved."










 
 
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