Oconomowoc, WI. Small City Puts Wal-Mart Deal On Ice For A Year--But Back Door Still Open
In May of 2013, the city of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin reached agreement with a mall developer to construct a huge big box "Town Centre" (which is not in a town, and not a 'centre'). The original plans called for a 151,000 s.f. Wal-Mart, plus a $136,000 s.f. Sam's Club. The total scheme submitted by developer Pabst Farms Development, Inc., according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, came to almost 1,000,000 s.f. of stores, restaurants, a movie theater, and an open-air retail center.
The city's economic development director said he was excited by the enormous project (this is what builds resumes), but the city of Oconomowoc has less than 16,000 people, so the Pabst Farms proposal as initially conceived would have provided more than 62 s.f. of new retail space per person in this little community.
The city argued that the parcel in question was zoned to allow big box stores, and that the project would create 400 "new" jobs--although no independent analysis of that projection was ever performed by the city.
There was only one problem: Oconomowoc residents had been led to believe that an "upscale" regional mall was in the works for this site---not a discount supercenter. Public reaction to the change in plans did not go over well with local residents. As the Journal-Sentinel wrote: "the backlash from residents was swift." In June of 2013, roughly 90 people showed up at the Common Council chambers, arguing the store would have a negative impact on local businesses and public safety.
One resident testified that Wal-Mart was "the final nail in the coffin" for existing retail competitors nearby, like Kmart and Aldi's. "There is a Wal-Mart in Watertown. There is a Wal-Mart in Delafield. So where are they drawing [business] from?" The group Walk Away Walmart had organized the anti- Wal-Mart rally.
As Sprawl-Busters reported on June 29, 2013, this is a welfare project subsidized by taxpayers, who provided approximately $24 million in tax incremental financing for new feeder roads, plus $2.5 million in tax breaks, and $17 million for other site costs. Given such an investment, it is appropriate that the public get to pick what retailers go into the project--since without public subsidies---no retailers would be going in.
There are already 5 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Oconomowoc, including a Wal-Mart superstore less than 10 miles away in Delafield, Wisconsin.
The developer tried to present the big box mall as something very different. "We remain committed to an upscale, regional shopping destination," Pabst Farms told the Journal-Sentinel, "and look forward to working with retailers like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club that are economically strong, weathered the recession, and are well positioned to succeed in this new economic environment."
The city claimed that it could not find tenants for the regional mall idea, so they switched to the open-air shopping center. The parcel for the Town Centre is roughly 120 acres. As far back as a decade ago, Pabst Farms began with a hospital, two hotels, a grocery store distribution center, and a local Pick 'n Save supermarket. The Wal-Mart superstore would have had a negative impact on the Pick 'n Save and the Roundy's grocery stores.
This week, in the face of strong opposition to superstores, the Pabst Farms developers agreed to hold off on selling land to Wal-Mart---but did not rule them out either. The developer agreed not to sell the land to Wal-Mart for one year.
According to Oconomowoc Mayor Jim Daley, the agreement also says that after one year passes, the developer "will agree to allow the city's Common Council to make a determination on whether or not we want those particular retailers in our community at that location." The Mayor also claims the developer has agreed not to seek "legal retribution" against the city if the Council votes not to accept a Wal-Mart.
In return for these concessions, the developer gets the right to build bigger stores. Currently the anchor stores on the site max out at 89,000 s.f. and 128,000 s.f. The city has agreed to raise the cap to 150,000 s.f. and 195,000 s.f. Wal-Mart remains a possible anchor under this plan, and at a size they would much prefer. The developer told the Journal-Sentinel that the original cap on building size was "simply too small for a number of alternative potential anchors." No independent verifaction of that claim was ever made either.
The Pabst Farm proposal will go before the city's Plan Commission for a public hearing on February 14th.
What you can do: Mayor Jim Daley has gotten an earful against this project. He told the newspaper, "Pabst Farms has shown a recognition that a portion of Oconomowoc has been vocal in their concern over the direction the development has taken."
Readers are urged to visit the opponent's website: http://www.walkawaywalmart.com/ and to email Mayor James Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Daley,
The taxpayers of your small city have invested many millions of dollars into the Pabst Farms project. The voters should have the final say in what kinds of stores come onto the site. You know that if you put store mix to a public vote, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club would be history.
But your latest agreement has left open the door a crack. In one year, Pabst Farms can come back and ask for the Council to vote for a larger Wal-Mart. That is unacceptable.
Among your goals for the city is "achieving a thriving and broad based economy." You cannot do this by opening the door to national chains that drain the economy of local merchants, and leave you with low wage jobs and workers dependent on Medicaid.
Oconomowoc already has 5 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles. A store three times the size of a football field, with a parking lot for 2,000 cars, does not fit into a small community of 16,000 people. Smaller, neighborhood stores would support a thriving economy, not pick it bone dry. Instead of negotiating for bigger big boxes, you as Mayor should lead the way to put a lower cap on the size of stores, and negotiate an amendment to the contract to ban stores larger than 40,000 s.f.
Your residents don't want to leave the back door to your city open for another year to a Wal-Mart supercenter. It's up to you to sew up the loopholes and move on with this project."