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2008-07-16
Liberty, Ohio. Wal-Martís Future Depends On Another Cityís Water

Wal-Mart is making waves in one small Ohio community -- literally. Residents in the township of Liberty, Ohio have been working hard to bring a Wal-Mart supercenter to town, which is like inviting a shark for dinner. But despite all their efforts, the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter on Belmont Avenue at the old Liberty Plaza is on hold -- waiting for water from a neighboring community. The township's Administrator, Patrick Ungaro, told officials that Wal-Mart informed him that their superstore project is on ice over the issue of water. Delays on this project are not a new issue. Last year at this time, Wal-Mart indicated that the retailer was putting the project on hold for its own internal reasons -- mainly due to a change in Wal-Mart's growth plans. The township was ready for the project last year. The fire department had approved plans to tear down the existing Liberty Plaza buildings. The only unhappy party was Forum Health -- which rented space in the Plaza that they didn't want to vacate. Forum Health, used its rental space in the plaza for its finance department, held up the Wal-Mart project for months, because the health care company did not want to pay for the moving costs. An agreement was eventually reached between Forum, the plaza's previous owners, and Wal-Mart. In July of 2007, Administrator Ungaro told the Vindicator newspaper, "The plans are approved. The land will be transferred and everything is ready to go." But now, a year later, no work has begun on the site. Now Wal-Mart is telling Liberty officials that unless the township and the city of Youngstown, Ohio agree to set up a Joint Economic Development District (JEED), which allows Youngstown to supply water to the Liberty Plaza site, the supercenter could be in trouble. A JEDD is an agreement between two communities to share services in exchange for compensation. Construction on the supercenter was slated to begin this summer. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Times-Chronicle newspaper, "At this time, our plans are to continue to move forward with this project." Liberty township officials met with Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams several weeks ago to talk about setting up a JEED on a site near Liberty Plaza -- but not part of the site. "We thought that would be a good idea for the developer of the property, the township and the city," Ungaro told the Chronicle. "Now, they also are talking about a JEDD on Belmont Avenue." The township thinks Youngstown has waded into water over its head, because the Liberty Plaza site already has waterlines, and Liberty sees no reason for the JEED there. All this has caused waves at the Trumbull County, Ohio level. County Commissioner Frank Fuda said that the Mayor of Youngstown did not have the legal right to stop a project in Trumbull county. "I don't think he can do that," Fuda told the Chronicle. "The waterline is already there. I question whether they can pick and choose who they deliver water to. Youngstown has been selling water to the plaza." Fuda has called in the county Prosecutor's Office to see how he can stop Mayor Williams from denying water toWal-Mart. "If they don't want to sell us water, we will get it from Girard or from Niles, Ohio," Fuda warned. "We are not going to allow Youngstown to stop progress in Trumbull County." For his part, Youngstown Mayor Williams says the whole controversy has bubbled over. "(Liberty officials) approached us two to three months ago about JEDD agreements on Gypsy Lane and the Wal-Mart site," Williams said. "Obviously, we were willing to work with them." But Liberty Trustees say they talked to Youngstown' finance director about establishing a JEDD. "Meetings with Youngstown were supposed to be exploratory only," the Trustees said. "To my knowledge, we, as a board, did not discuss a JEDD in connection with Belmont Avenue."

What you can do: Mayor Jay Williams claims he never threatened to hold up the Wal-Mart project, and told a local TV station that the water controversy is just a failure to communicate. One Liberty Trustee, Jodi Stoyak, continues to charge that Youngstown has threatened to withhold water. "We certainly will do whatever we can in our power to make sure that Wal-Mart continues their project," Stoyak said. But Mayor Williams says he never made water a quid pro quo. "If someone in Liberty is saying that," the Mayor said, "I find that to be disingenuous." Readers are urged to email Mayor Williams at: mayor@cityof youngstownoh.com with this message: "Dear Mayor Williams, There are currently six Wal-Mart superstores within 20 miles of Liberty Township. A Wal-Mart supercenter on Belmont Avenue will add no economic value to either Liberty or Youngstown, because the supercenter will merely drain sales from existing merchants. I encourage you, therefore, to drain the Wal-Mart of water. Don't agree to provide the Liberty Plaza site with Youngstown water. Send the message to Liberty that this project neither means jobs, nor revenues for Liberty. There may be water, water everywhere -- but not a drop for Wal-Mart."










 
 
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