Lake City, South Carolina’s main claim to fame is that astronaut Ronald E. McNair, who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1986, was a graduate of Carver High School in Lake City. Other than that, the “city” has little to say about itself. The headline story this week in the local newspaper was a rumor that a Wal-Mart supercenter is coming to town. This is not good news for the existing Wal-Mart discount store on Kelley Street in Lake City. That store will surely shut down if a superstore is ever built in Lake City. The “city” is so small it cannot support two Wal-Marts. In fact, the city’s population has fallen from 7,153 in 1990, to 6,666 in 2007. The residents of Lake City not only have Wal-Mart discount store # 621 already — but there are two Wal-Mart supercenters with 25 miles of the city in Florence, South Carolina. Lake City is one of those communities that is defined by what its close to: 23 miles south of Florence, 63 miles west of Myrtle Beach, 89 miles north of historic Charleston, and 78 miles from the South Carolina capitol of Columbia. The city boasts that there are 57,415 people living within a 15 mile radius of Lake City. This week, the Lake City News & Times reported that Wal-Mart was officially denying any plans to build a superstore in Lake City. According to a spokesman for the retailer, Wal-Mart has no intention to build a supercenter in Lake City. The company repeated its standard response when asked about new stores: the company is always looking for new emerging markets to place new stores, but “nothing is on the horizon” for Lake City. The oldest real estate company in Lake City, Brown & Company, told the newspaper that no decisions have been made to build a Wal-Mart supercenter in Lake City. The company dismissed such talk as “just rumors.” But the local media has reported something more important than rumors: three years ago, the Lake City Council rezoned 30.4 acres off U.S. 52 that the Lake City Planning Commission said would hold a 184,000 s.f. big box store with a 920 space parking lot. It won’t be too much longer before Wal-Mart announces their plan to build a superstore in Lake City is on the horizon.
Citizens in Lake City would do well to ignore what Wal-Mart is saying about a supercenter in Lake City. The giant retailer almost never admits in advance that they have interest in a site. This is for several reasons: 1) they don’t want their competitors to know where they are going 2) they don’t want the neighbors to know they are coming, because they want to defuse any opposition until as late as possible 3) they don’t want to drive up the price of the land if a third party is serving as the up-front developer. So Wal-Mart will deny all rumors, even when reporters begin to unravel the secret. Wal-Mart will say, “we have no plans — at this time,” or make comments like “nothing is on the horizon.” But the reality is there is no one else who wants to build a 184,000 s..f. store in a tiny town like Lake City. This project will leave the city with an empty Wal-Mart to fill, just like the empty Wal-Mart stores in Cheraw, Columbia, Lauren and Marion, South Carolina. It may take years to fill the empty Wal-Mart in Lake City if a superstore is built — or the ‘old’ store may never be filled, and will have to be torn down. A new superstore could also force existing grocery stores in the Lake City trade area to shut down, like the Piggly Wiggly, or the Bi-Lo, or the two IGA stores. Readers are urged to call Lake City Mayor Lovith Anderson Jr. at (843) 374-5421 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Anderson, You don’t have much time left to save the Wal-Mart discount store on Kelley Street. Once Wal-Mart announces it plans to build a supercenter in your small city, it will be too late to protect other merchants from going under. Now is the time to pass a simple, one sentence zoning amendment that limits the size of retail stores to 65,000 s.f. Take action now — because Wal-Mart will not reveal themselves until the deal is done, and the first store that will close when the Wal-Mart superstore opens will be the Wal-Mart discount store in Lake City. Take a trip to Columbia or Lauren, and ask local officials what they think about the dead Wal-Mart discount store in their community. You won’t get new jobs, you won’t get added revenues from a superstore. All you will get is more businesses closing, more traffic, and more crime. While you are still in the ‘rumor’ stage, now is the only chance you have to lead growth instead of following it. Talk to your Planning Commission and City Council about a size cap. And when Wal-Mart asks you if a size cap is being considered, just tell them, ‘Nothing is on the horizon.'” Wal-Mart knows what that means.