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2008-11-18
Pass Christian, MS. Wal-Mart Rebuilds After Katrina—But Not Downtown

"We party for just about anything over here," says the Mayor of Pass Christian, Mississippi, "but you better believe we're going to have a party on Nov. 18." That's the day Wal-Mart broke ground for its new superstore -- to replace the one destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Pass Christian is a community of roughly 6,300 people. Its population has actually fallen since 2000. The city had a Wal-Mart store until Katrina blew it away in August of 2005. Katrina also took away 75% of the city's 3,800 homes. Today, there is a Wal-Mart supercenter 8 miles away in Waveland, Mississippi, and a second superstore 12 miles away in Gulfport. But officials in Pass Christian want their own Wal-Mart back, and have been waiting three years without their own source of cheap, Chinese imports. "We're in such financial straits," one city official admitted, "that we have to try to figure out the best way to replace our tax base and protect the charm of our community." Three years ago this week, the national media was proclaiming that Wal-Mart would rebuild the store that Hurricane Katrina destroyed in Pass Christian. USA Today ran a story about how the rebuilt Wal-Mart store in Pass Christian would have "an urban look" and be located downtown. USA Today even ran an architect's drawing of a Wal-Mart 'corner store'. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour had invited architects to bring "fresh rebuilding ideas" stores like the one Katrina destroyed in Pass Christian. The newspaper said the 'new urbanism' ideas included a "return to old-fashioned town design that encourages people to walk from home to stores." Reportedly, executives from Wal-Mart met with designers in January of 2006 in Bentonville, Arkansas to look over plans that included a "Wal-Mart Village," a big store surrounded by condos and town houses, with parking hidden behind the building. "It humanizes big-box retail," a British designer told USA Today. "If it's really successful, it cuts down on car traffic," he said. Another plan touted by the media was for a "downtown Wal-Mart" with "an urban street-front façade rather than a strip-mall front." "We got a very positive reception (from Wal-Mart)," said the California designer working on the Pass Christian design team. For its part, Wal-Mart was careful not to endorse such ideas. "We haven't made any commitments to these specific designs," a spokesman for the retailer said. "We definitely want to keep our options open." By April of 2007, Pass Christian Mayor "Chipper" McDermott had made rebuilding the Wal Mart one of the key economic development strategies for the city, including an $8 million downtown revitalization initiative -- even though the Wal-Mart supercenter on the edge of the city will compete with many businesses that would rebuild downtown. Wal-Mart has been described as the city's "lone cash cow." The retail giant was responsible for more than $75,000 of the city's monthly income. The new store will be rebuilt on its old beachfront property. Wal-Mart bought five additional acres north of their property and the new store will be built about 500 feet north of the old footprint. The Mayor says of the new superstore, "There won't be any other Wal-Mart like it in the Southeast." His Honor told the media that his Wal-Mart would feature an oyster bar -- which actually is not true -- Wal-Mart deleted it. "You're going to like this one even better," the manager of the new Wal-Mart told local residents who came to the groundbreaking ceremony. "The design of this store is really cool." Despite all the media hype, the groundbreaking this week in Pass Christian is for a pretty uncool big box store with a suburban parking lot sprawling around it


What you can do: When Wal-Mart opened in 2002, it reportedly tripled the city's sales tax income, because the rest of the retail market in this very small community was was on life support. Pass Christian's Mayor opened up a bottle of champagne this week to celebrate Wal-Mart's return. Wal Mart's dispatched one of its regional vice presidents to the groundbreaking ceremony. According to WLOX TV, the spokesman told the Mayor, "Mr. Mayor, we're here." The TV station said Wal-Mart's return "felt like Mardi Gras." By next fall, the smaller Wal Mart supercenter will be open. But all the talk about "new urbanism" and "village" design turned out to be just hot air. In the end, the Wal-Mart is Pass Christian looks pretty much like the other box stores Wal-Mart is building these days. There is nothing 'cool' or innovative about this store design. It is absurdly large for a city of only 6,300 people, with several other superstores nearby, it will mostly cannibalize sales at other Wal-Mart stores. The Pass Christian Wal-Mart is actually a monument to the lack of regional land use planning in Mississippi, where it is each town for itself fighting for sales tax payouts. The head of the design team in Pass Christian had it right. "Wal-Mart is able to do a lot of things better than anybody on the planet," she said. "But what they're not good at is building beautiful buildings that fit into the rest of the town. ... They've contributed to the dislocation, the disconnection of urban form in towns because they're such a huge building and a huge parking lot." Readers are urged to email Pass Christian Mayor Leo "Chipper" McDermott at mayorsoffice@ci.pass-christian.ms.us with the following message: "It's hard to imagine a city where Wal-Mart is viewed as its chief economic engine -- but it seems like Pass Christian is pursuing two conflicting economic goals. By spending $8 million on downtown revitalization, while approving a Wal-Mart on Route 90, you are working at odds with your own goals. Wal-Mart will never help your downtown -- in fact it will stifle local businesses. You will see a few more national restaurant chains -- but your population is falling, and Wal-Mart brings little added value -- only low paying jobs, traffic and crime. Yes, you get more sales tax -- but you will never really prosper if retail is your main revenue source. It's a shame you let them build a traditional big box. A downtown Wal-Mart would have been much better for Pass Christian. You didn't even get your Oyster Bar. All that hype about 'new urbanism' and look at what you ended up with: an unremarkable store with a parking lot large enough to land a plane. You might want to ask Wal-Mart now for a demolition bond to cover the cost of tearing the superstore down when Wal-Mart one day closes that huge store. The next time Wal-Mart leaves, it won't be because of a hurricane. Unless you want an empty store for years -- get them to put demolition money in escrow now -- while you can still get it."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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