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The megastore mixed bag

As excitement builds at the prospect of new Wal-Mart supercenters in Inverness and Crystal River, the specter of empty predecessors and struggling competitors persists.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


INVERNESS -- Nancy Perkins can't wait for the Wal-Mart Supercenter to be built just outside of Inverness.

Finally, a place she can get toothpaste, gardening supplies and pot roasts in one stop.

"The one in Brooksville offers so much, you can just go there and pick up anything you need," said Perkins, an Inverness resident who shops at the Brooksville center periodically.

While many shoppers share her excitement for the future Inverness supercenter and the possibility of another one in Crystal River, the megastores can be a mixed bag for communities.

The supercenters offer about 100,000 items, including the clothing, electronics and general merchandise found at regular Wal-Marts, plus a full-service grocery store with produce, deli and a bakery.

But they also offer mostly low-paying jobs with high-priced health insurance premiums that many employees cannot afford. Labor unions say about 60 percent of Wal-Mart's workers do not have health insurance through the company, which means they are either insured through a spouse's employer or not at all.

Wal-Mart supports the area with grants and awards, contributing $9.2-million last year to the Florida communities that are home to 82 Wal-Marts, 62 Wal-Mart Supercenters and 34 Sam's Clubs.

When a new supercenter comes to town, however, it also contributes to the already-stiff competition among grocery stores and other businesses. That can lead to layoffs or closures for other employers.

"Every competitor takes some business out of the market, regardless of their name, and certainly Wal-Mart is a well-known, formidable competitor," said Mickey Clerc, spokesman for Winn-Dixie, a chain that has scaled back its operations in recent years due to competitive pressures. "When there is a certain amount of population, there are only going to be a certain number of grocery stores."

A new supercenter also is a boon to the tax base. The one in Brooksville, for instance, paid $207,086 in property taxes last year.

But what about the empty stores left behind? The opening of a supercenter often means the closing of a nearby Wal-Mart, leaving a giant vacancy that can be hard to fill.

Although a Wal-Mart spokeswoman did not return calls for this story, the company has previously said it will close the existing Wal-Mart in Inverness when the supercenter opens a quarter-mile away.

"We're looking forward to the supercenter, but I worry about what they'll do with this store," said Glenn Pickering, a customer at the Inverness Wal-Mart.

"I don't like to see stores sit empty," his wife, Frieda, added.

In addition to filling the Inverness Wal-Mart building, county officials wonder what will happen to the Wal-Mart in Homosassa if the company builds a supercenter just south of Crystal River.

"I was told that if and when they open in Crystal River, they would consider leaving the one in Homosassa in place because it's so productive," said Chuck Dixon, the county's director of Community Development.

"But I was also told that by Publix when they said they were going to leave their store open in Crystal River when they opened the new one (on State Road 44)," he added.

The former Kings Bay supermarket has sat empty since October.

* * *

In its 1998 annual report, Wal-Mart aptly dubbed its real estate division, "The Wal-Mart nobody knows." The chain has built more than 500 supercenters across the country in the past three years, leaving 363 old Wal-Mart buildings available for lease.

Its empty or soon-to-be empty stores nationwide account for 27.6-million square feet of retail space. The Web site for Wal-Mart's real estate division shows 25 available stores in Florida, including the Inverness store that will be vacated when the supercenter opens a few blocks away. Only Texas and Georgia have more empty Wal-Marts, with 40 and 35, respectively.

So what happens to all this unused space? Wal-Mart tries to lease it, but won't let any competitors move in. That limits potential tenants, and often the behemoth buildings remain vacant for a while.

In Lakeland, Wal-Mart left an 111,322-square-foot building boarded up for nearly two years after the supercenter opened a couple of miles up U.S. 98. A discount furniture store moved into the space last month, but it doesn't look like it's there to say, city plans reviewer Lorenzo Thomas said.

"We've still got the mall around there and a (movie) theater. We've got a strip center near there," Thomas said. "Things seem to be going pretty good, except you've got that one empty building sitting there."

Finding a new tenant can be difficult because few retailers need that much space, and most so-called "big box" stores want to design their own building, he said.

But it can be done. Old Wal-Marts in other communities have been converted into department stores or farming supply companies.

The Inverness Wal-Mart building drew the interest last year of a tractor dealer, although Citrus County hasn't heard from that company since.

"We would work with whomever to try to make a move into that building as quickly as possible," Community Development director Dixon said.

Perhaps with some rezoning, the building could be converted into a distribution center, a customer service call-in center or a factory assembly line, Economic Development Council executive director Brett Wattles said.

"Environmentally and aesthetically you don't want a lot of empty buildings sitting around," Wattles said. "People might get the wrong impression about what's going on with your economy."

* * *

Proposed Wal-Mart supercenters have drawn protests in other areas, but the future store is eagerly anticipated by many Inverness shoppers.

Outside, the building will be one of the first to comply with the county's "big box ordinance," with a patterned facade, extra greenery, benches and pedestrian paths to make the giant store more attractive.

Inside, there will be wider aisles and more room than the crowded Wal-Mart open now, Inverness resident Dee Olafson said. "The people are coming here, and they've got to have somewhere to shop," she said Friday, loading her Wal-Mart buys into her car.

Olafson works in Brooksville, and when she shops at the supercenter there, she often sees customers who drive from Inverness to get all their shopping done in one place.

"It's one-stop shopping," she said. "You don't have to go from place to place to place to get kitchen supplies, prescriptions from the pharmacy or items from the grocery store. "I think they ought to close all of the Wal-Mart discount stores and replace them with supercenters," she said.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

SUPERCENTER STATUS

INVERNESS: Wal-Mart submitted a revised building permit application May 24 for a 203,662-square-foot supercenter on State Road 44, just west of the existing Wal-Mart. The property is already zoned for commercial use, although Wal-Mart is applying for a "brownfields" designation to receive federal and state funding to clean up the soil contamination on the former asphalt plant property. Wal-Mart hopes to get building permits to start construction later this year.

CRYSTAL RIVER: A developer has proposed plans for an unnamed megastore on U.S. 19 and W Penn Drive, just south of the Crystal River Airport. Although the plans do not name Wal-Mart, the retail giant has shown interest in building a superstore in the area. The plans for a 200,000-square-foot store would require about 18 acres to be rezoned from low-density residential to general commercial. The Planning and Development Review Board recommended approval of the project May 16, and the plans go to the County Commission for discussion June 11 and a vote July 9.

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