Wal-Mart discount store #2560 sits along Ocean Gateway road in Berlin, Maryland. According to local officials, the store is “over-shopped.” If that’s true, it’s not from people in Berlin, because the community has less than 4,000 people living there, an increase from 1990, when the population was 2,616. The nearby community of Ocean City, Maryland has roughly 7,000 people — so the two communities combined couldn’t “overshop” any store. If they did, the competitors would have no business at all. The entire county of Worcester in Maryland has just about enough people to support a superstore: 49,500. Worcester County pitches itself to tourists — not to big box shoppers. Located on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Worcester County is Maryland’s only seaside county, “known for Ocean City’s clean sandy beaches, outdoor recreation, steamed crabs and the famous wild pony herd on Assateague Island State Park and National Seashore.” Worcester County also claims to have the best birding in the state, “and 100 miles of marked bicycle trails on flat country roads.” And if no citizen opposition creates waves — Worcester County will soon be able to claim the 14th supercenter in Maryland. But it turns out that Worcester County, which is now considering plans for a long-delayed Wal-Mart supercenter, is talking out of both sides of its mouth. In one tourist promotion, the tiny town of Berlin is described to visitors as “the exquisite, Victorian-era town of Berlin with its romantic bed and breakfasts. Or visit historic Snow Hill and Pocomoke City, with their 100-plus century-old homes and proximity to the beautiful Pocomoke River. All these towns… are just a short drive away from the beach. Get away from the strip malls, the fast food and the city lights. Trade it in for history, architecture and an easy pace of life.” Now the county wants to “trade” all this for a huge, Wal-Mart supercenter! The Bethany Beach Wave newspaper reports this week that Wal-Mart has told the media that the superstore, which will replace the “old” Wal-Mart store on Ocean Gateway, is now under review by county officials. “We’ve recently met with the technical review committee and received the technical comments regarding the site plan,” a lawyer for Wal-Mart said. “The consultants are addressing those comments now.” The site plans will be submitted soon, and once it is approved, a building permit can be issued. According to The Wave, this recent activity by Wal-Mart comes after months of silence over the project, which first washed up on shore three years ago. “Wal-Mart has known that the current Wal-Mart is one of their most over-shopped stores,” County Commissioner Judy Boggs told The Wave. Boggs said the slow-down in progress was not on Wal-Marts shore, but caused by negotiations over water and sewer issues. Wal-Mart says there are a variety of issues yet to resolve. The Worcester County Planning Commission was slated to take up the site plan on September 4th, but Wal-Mart cancelled the meeting.
According to the Baltimore Business Journal, the Wal-Mart in Berlin is one of six new supercenters that Wal-Mart is pursuing in the state. Four of them are conversions of existing discount stores in Hampstead, North East, Laurel, and Cambridge, Maryland. But new stores are being built in Denton and Berlin. In Hampstead, Wal-Mart is proposing to expand its existing store from 103,000 s.f. to 193,000 s.f. The Baltimore Business Journal quoted a local merchant who said that a supercenter in Hampstead could hurt smaller grocers in the area. Lou Santoni, co-owner of Santoni’s Marketplace and Catering Co. in Glyndon, Maryland told the Journal, “They already cannibalize the dry goods and health and beauty care business of the supermarket.” Readers are urged to email the President of the Worcester County Commissioners, Virgil Shockley at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear President Shockley, I was shocked to learn that a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter is being considered in Berlin, to shut down the ‘old’ Wal-Mart store on Ocean Gateway. To put a one-story, sprawling, windowless big box amidst the seacoast’s natural beauty, seems to me foolish and shortsighted. These small towns have been promoted for their romantic nature, pristine beaches, and old homes. Into the mix, you toss a totally incompatible big box store. Even worse, you allow Wal-Mart to abandon its existing stores, as it has done hundreds of times elsewhere. It’s time for Worcester County to do a better job of protecting its natural environment and its taxpayers. Don’t turn this unique environment into another sprawling nowhere. Put a cap of 50,000 s.f. on the size of new retail buildings, make them conform to a village-appropriate scale and design, and then pass an ordinance that requires retailers to put money into escrow to pay for any store they leave empty for more than 12 months. This is not an economic development project for Worcester County, because most of the ‘new’ jobs will come from the ‘old’ Wal-Mart store, and the existing grocery stores in the area. You will see no new jobs, and little new net revenues. But even worse: you can’t buy small town quality of life on any Wal-Mart shelf, and once they take it away, you can’t buy it back at any price.”