Can an aggressive developer bring a Wal-Mart supercenter back from the dead? The people in Mentor, Ohio are not holding their breath. On April 13, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that city officials in Mentor had made a back room deal with Wal-Mart to allow a supercenter to be constructed, and an existing Wal-Mart discount store to go dark. There are 8 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Mentor. The city itself already has a Wal-Mart discount store on Mentor Avenue. But there’s also a Wal-Mart supercenter in Chardon, Ohio only 8 miles away, plus three other supercenters within a short drive. There are approximately 52,000 people living in Mentor. The city boasts of its “incomparable lifestyle” and says “bargain hunters will love shopping in the sixth largest retail center in the state of Ohio!” The city estimates that it has “nearly 600 retail businesses, and a “low 6.25% sales tax” that makes Mentor a “popular destination for shoppers.” Since 1961, the city has been home to the Great Lakes Mall, which, when first built, was the largest indoor shopping mall in the country. It holds 1.5 million square feet of retail space over 125 acres of land. Even with all this retail space, city officials in Mentor wanted more. Last spring, city officials announced that they were trading up on Wal-Marts. Under the deal, the existing Wal-Mart discount store would be closed, and a new supercenter would open at a mall called The Shoppes of Diamond Center. “It was confirmed by United Commercial Property Group,” city Councilman Ray Kirchner told the News-Herald. “Construction should start sometime next year.” The announcement came as no surprise, since United Commercial announced in 2007 that they were negotiating a 185,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter deal at Diamond Center. The city and the developer said they were just waiting for Wal-Mart to make a decision. But another city councilman admitted that city officials were doing more than waiting. Councilor Scott Marn revealed that Wal-Mart had a private meeting with city officials last May of 2007 at the International Shopping Center Conference in Las Vegas. While residents in Mentor were picking up the cost of this Las Vegas trip, city employees were wooing Wal-Mart in Vegas. Marn admitted that members of the city council were discussing an actual agreement with Wal-Mart at that private session. “When we met at the ISCS conference we discussed the agreement,” Marn told the newspaper. “I’m glad it finally went through.” The city has also admitted that the city’s current Wal-Mart store will shut down, but they suggest the closure won’t “happen real soon.” According to councilor Kirchner, “It might not be until 2010.” Mentor city manager John Konrad told the News-Herald, “We’ve had an understanding with Wal-Mart for a long time, so we are certainly glad it’s going to move forward. It’s an expansion of that commercial area, and that’s the direction the city is going. It will be nice to have a big new Wal-Mart.” But as the months wore on, it appeared that the ‘big new Wal-Mart’ might not happen at all. The News-Herald reported in early May of 2009 that Wal-Mart had changed its plans. “We were working with the city on a proposed project,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper. “We decided we would focus on our existing store and improve the customer experience at that location.” This change of heart is consistent with Wal-Mart’s growth plans, which emphasize enhancing existing stores, and reducing the number of new superstore projects. This dramatic cancellation left Mentor officials in a state of denial. “I don’t think they’re abandoning the project, just probably waiting for the economy to be at a better time,” the City Manager lamented. Councilman Kirchner said the city had spent a significant amount of money on engineering and wetlands studies, and defending their rezoning decision in court. “It’s been a long road,” he told the News-Herald. “I, for one, hope it goes through eventually.” Along the ‘long road,’ local residents took the city to court. In 2006, a Mentor taxpayer took the city to Lake County Common Pleas Court, charging the city’s rezoning was unconstitutional. The 11th District Court of Appeals backed the city, but the court decision was appealed, and the lawsuit was finally dropped in August of 2008. The City’s Economic Development Director seems to think getting a Wal-Mart supercenter in Mentor would really put his town on the map as a retail mecca. “You’ve certainly heard the often-quoted statement… ‘If you can’t buy it in Mentor, it’s probably not worth having,'” the Development Director told the newspaper. “In a simplistic way, that epitomizes our desire to have them in town. Certainly not everybody in the community shops at Wal-Mart or a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but it adds to the breadth of goods and services that can be purchased here.” Meanwhile, Wal-Mart said that the remodeling of its existing store would start by August of 2009. “I believe once the remodeled store is complete that the store will be a great asset to the community. It will have fresh look and fresh appeal that I believe our customers will enjoy.” City officials are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief. This week, the News-Herald reports that a developer is trying to lift a Mentor Wal-Mart supercenter from the dead. Mark P. Escaja, the president of United Commercial Companies, said he is trying to start over with the proposal for a superstore at The Shoppes of Diamond Centre off. Like a bad movie in reruns, Escaja approached Wal-Mart officials in May of 2009 at the Annual Shopping Center Convention in Las Vegas, asking them this time to work with him on submitting a new proposal. Wal-Mart told him apparently that he could proceed — but with no guarantees. But Escaja is not making as much progress with Robert Shiner, the Mentor City Council President. Shiner told the newspaper that he does not want to put the city in the middle of a battle between United Commercial and a landowner who controls some of the property the project needs to move ahead. “I’m trying to protect this city. The city is not going to get in the middle of their war,” Shiner explained. But Escaja dismissed his legal problems as just a “partner dispute.” But the landowner told the News-Herald that we was convinced Wal-Mart was not going to abandon its existing discount store now that it was spending money to update it. Wal-Mart officially said this week that its existing store is where its attention lies. “We are going to continue to focus on our existing store and focus on our customer experience there,” the retailer’s spokesman said.
According to the News-Herald, this Wal-Mart superstore has had “a rough road from the beginning.” There was an unsuccessful petition drive by opponents to stop the rezoning of the 54 acre site, which had been earmarked for manufacturing, not retail. The lawsuit filed against the superstore by a local resident started in 2006, and was finally dropped in the summer of 2008. But from start to finish, the superstore has been beset with setbacks. Despite Wal-Mart’s very clear statements, local officials continue to behave as if they have a live plan for a superstore. They cannot fully grasp that Wal-Mart has shifted gears, and the superstore plan is dead. In their unabashed enthusiasm to add another grocery store to Mentor, city officials appear to have forgotten the existing merchant base in the city, and the fact that many residents might not approve of a store almost four times the size of a football field. Wal-Mart has changed its focus over the past year on refurbishing existing discount stores into supercentes — so-called ‘in-box conversions.’ This is more economical for Wal-Mart, better for the environment and more sustainable overall. But officials in Mentor still don’t grasp the difference, and are clinging to their superstore as if it were some new form of economic development. They were even willing to down-zone manufacturing land for a meager retail jobs. Readers are urged to email Mentor’s City Council President, Robert M. Shiner, and the other six members of the city council at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear President Shiner and City Councilors, You have dodged a Wal-Mart bullet — and don’t even smell the smoke. The cancellation of the Wal-Mart supercenter is the best economic news your community has had in several years. You were making a super mistake by thinking that adding a Wal-Mart supercenter to the Diamond Center was going to add value to your local economy. Because you already have a Wal-Mart discount store, most of the jobs and sale revenues from the supercenter would have been transferred from that discount store. The only new component is a grocery store. No doubt many of the sales at a Mentor supercenter would have been captured from sales at the supercenter in Chardon 8 miles away. This is not economic development. A superstore would not only cannibalize the Chardon Wal-Mart — it would take sales from the existing grocery stores in Mentor. The Council gave this project an unfair advantage, and decided the land use issues before the public even knew about it. Your city manager may think its ‘nice’ to have a ‘big, new Wal-Mart,’ but environmentally its just more sprawl in Mentor for dubious economic gains. The giant retailer is doing many of these in-box conversions, and cancelling superstore projects. Ironically, they have just spared you the expense of dealing with a huge, empty store. If you don’t have a Wal-Mart supercenter in Mentor by now, it’s probably not worth having. Tell Mr. Escaja the bad dream is over, and he should let sleeping Wal-Marts lie. It’s time to go back and look for a light manufacturing use for this parcel instead, and stop encouraging retail sprawl.”