Colonie, NY. After Four Years, Wal-Mart Still Playing One Town Off Another
Over the past 15 years, most of Wal-Mart's new stores are replacement stores that shut down another unit nearby. No company in the history of retailing has every shut down so many stores just to build larger ones nearby.
This massive closing of stores was due to the revelation that Wal-Mart had in the late 1980s that a grocery store brings shoppers through your door more often than a discount store. We buy bananas more often than we buy pants or pots.
As a result, Wal-Mart began the wholesale closure of hundreds of discount stores that for one reason or another, could not be converted into superstores. Most of the stores being closed dated from the 1990s and even into 2000 and later.
That's what is happening in Colonie and Latham, New York. On March 26, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was having an initial hearing for a superstore proposal in Colonie. Several months earlier, Wal-Mart had approached local officials in Colonie (pop. 82,000) with the idea of a 195,000 s.f. superstore project, surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking spaces totaling 431,000 s.f..
The new superstore, however, would cause the closing of Wal-Mart's existing discount store several miles away in Latham, New York, which would leave one of the largest mall developers in the nation with a hole in its mall.
This story goes back to June of 2006, when a developer, Widewaters Group, of DeWitt, New York, first came to Colonie with big store ideas. This is the same developer who has lost supercenter battles in Saratoga Springs and Ballston, New York, and in Bangor, Maine. Widewaters also ran into rough seas in Ithaca and Greece, New York.
In 2006, Widewaters floated away from the so-called "First Prize Center" project in Colonie because the town wasn't supportive enough. After spending nearly a year trying in vain to gather neighborhood support, Widewaters pulled the plug. Widewaters would have had to spend a large sum to tear down the former Tobin meat-packing plant.
When the developer met with Colonie officials, the project went aground. "We met with the leadership ... and they told us they couldn't support it in any way," said a development manager at Widewaters. "There was not much point in going forward."
The Town's Supervisor said the site was not appropriate for a big-box store and that the town would prefer a mix of retail and residential uses. "The amount of traffic I feel it would generate is not something we'd like to see in that area," she said. "It's still a residential neighborhood."
Widewaters said it was shocked that the town would not support a Wal-Mart supercenter. "It wasn't meant to be under the current political leadership," the developer's spokesman added. "We weren't willing to swim upstream on this one."
But Wal-Mart played the waiting game in Colonie, and by March of 2008, Widewaters was back in the swim of things in Colonie. This time the 23 acre site that Wal-Mart wanted was owned by a local car dealer. The site at one time was a drive-in movie theatre, but was now an empty field. So the Colonie Planning Board was going to be asked to fill 23 acres of open space for a retail use similar to one being vacated by the same company less than two miles away.
At Widewater's first hearing before local officials, dozens of residents came out to the planning board meeting to hear about Wal-Mart's plans. "I want to see all of the facts about it and how it will impact our traffic situation, what the residents feel about it," Colonie Town Supervisor Paula Mahan, told the TV station. "The main thing is that it goes through the process the way it should."
On November 3, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had assured Colonie officials that its national plans to cut back on new store growth would not affect the Colonie superstore -- and that their discount store at Latham Farms was still slated to close. "We are still moving forward with our planned relocation of our store in Latham to Colonie," a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Albany Times Union. "The announcement we made last week about our decision to moderate growth in the U.S. does not impact this project," he said. Wal-Mart said the Colonie store "is really about finding a place where we could grow a little bit."
An official for the town explained that the Colonie Planning Board made an initial review of the project last spring -- but that now Wal-Mart has to come back in with additional impacts on traffic and other site concerns. "We're in a holding pattern until that information is received," the town planner said.
Nearly two years after that last update, the Wal-Mart project in Colonie was in the news again this week -- still not done. The town's Planning Board is still hearing the case, and on September 14th will review plans again.
Neighbors in Latham are making waves about the traffic the superstore will generate. For their part, Wal-Mart has been running radio ads urging local officials to approve the plan, as if it was a political office the company was seeking. Wal-Mart's ads claim that the store will boost property taxes for Colonie residents, and because there is no superstore in Colonie, shoppers are driving elsewhere to shop. The company doesn't mention in its ads that the town of Latham will lose out in the deal, and have a dead Wal-Mart on its hands.
What you can do: There are 8 Wal-Marts today within 10 miles of Colonie, including 4 supercenters in Glenville, Halfmoon, East Greenbush, and Glenmont. There's a Wal-Mart discount store in Albany, and the discount store in Latham roughly a mile away.
The Latham Wal-Mart is around 125,000 s.f., and was built in 1993. Wal-Mart will close this 17 year-old store, which is the size of two football fields. Wal-Mart spent money in 2001 remodeling the Latham store. The "old" store has about 275 employees, many of whom will have to seek employment at the supercenter if it is approved.
The supercenter will "create" 175 additional jobs, Wal-Mart claims, but once you subtract grocery workers laid off at other merchants, the net impact on jobs and taxes is minimal. The mall where the "old" Wal-Mart sits is owned by Kimco Realty, the nation's largest publicly-traded owner and operator of neighborhood and community shopping centers with interests in over 950 centers totaling more than 147 million square feet.
Kimco owns malls in 44 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. The company owns 70 malls in New York state alone. Across the country, Kimco has Wal-Mart anchors in 23 of its malls. The Latham Farms mall that Wal-Mart is leaving has 616,130 s.f., including a Dick's, Hannaford's grocery store, Home Depot, and Sam's Club. Kimco has a lease with Wal-Mart that will require several years of rent from the retailer while Kimco searches for a replacement tenant.
Wal-Mart said in 2008 it expected the site plan approval process in Colonie to take a year and a half, and building the store another year. But the process is now in its fourth year.
Readers are urged to email Colonie's supervisor, Paula Mahan, at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message: "Colonie was right in 2006 to reject the Wal-Mart/Widewaters plan. But now they are back ready to shut down their Latham Farms store, and move one mile away onto 23 acres of open space.
In your 2005 Comprehensive Plan, it says that 'while these commercial retail areas provide needed services to Town residents, many residents have expressed through the public outreach process concern over the amount of large scale development in the community.'
Your plan says you will try to 'preserve key areas of open space in the Town.' This project makes no sense. It's the wrong size and the wrong place for Colonie. You open a bigger Wal-Mart, and you close another one a few miles away. This project will not create "new" jobs. Most of the jobs will be transferred from the 'old' Latham Farms store. That's not economic development.
Wal-Mart is just playing a game of retail musical chairs. The rest of its "new" jobs will come from area grocery stores, to the new Wal-Mart. I urge you, and the Town Board, to vote against this project. Your town motto is "A Place To Be Proud Of." Stealing Latham's discount store is nothing to be proud of."