The city of Leavenworth, Kansas has much more than just a famous U.S. penitentiary. It has a Wal-Mart discount store on 4th Traffic Way, plus another 5 Wal-Mart stores within 21 miles of the city, including Wal-Mart superstores in Atchison, Kansas City, and Bonner Springs. So all the residents of Leavenworth have good access to Chinese imports. The problem, however, is that Leavenworth has a shrinking market base. The city’s population has fallen 9% since 1990, and stands at 34,993 as of 2006. Perhaps city officials believe that a Wal-Mart supercenter will entice more people to move back to Leavenworth — even though they have a supercenter where they live. Or perhaps city officials believe closing down the Wal-Mart on 4th Traffic Way will help the local neighborhood rebound. This week, the Leavenworth Times reports that sparks were flying at a public hearing in response to the giant retailer’s request for a rezoning. Wal-Mart wants to build on a piece of land on Eisenhower Road. Their plans were submitted last month to rezone the parcel from “general business and residential” to “planned unit development.” At the hearing, Wal-Mart’s consultants tried to impress local residents with the new features this superstore would include. “We’re going to bring the scale down, make it more human,” Wal-Mart’s architect promised. But he wasn’t talking about a smaller store, just design elements like less signage on the outside and a “less intimidating” roof line. The superstore will also have greenspace in front of the store to “help contain any debris from the parking lot.” On the inside, Wal-Mart is now bragging that its hulking box of a store features more skylights for “daylight harvesting,” polished concrete instead of linoleum tile, and a heating system that runs partially off of recycled vegetable and motor oil. The company is also willing to put in a traffic light in front of the store, because Eisenhower Road at this site is already a “failing” intersection. “We know that (our plans) will exasperate that,” their traffic engineer admitted. But the locals in Leavenworth were not impressed by these bells and whistles. “I cannot imagine something twice as big as my farm going in there,” said one resident. She properly noted that the “old” Wal-Mart will become empty, and turn into an eyesore for the city. “I saw this happen with the old Wal-Mart at 20th and Spruce,” she said. “Nobody can fill that space and make it look nice, so it just becomes blight.” Wal-Mart’s public affairs staff assured the residents that Wal-Mart Realty will find a new tenant for the building. Wal-Mart currently has roughly 200 “dark stores” on the market nationally, including empty stores in Arkansas City, Manhattan, and Wellington, Kansas. Other neighbors raised the issues of traffic impacts, lowered quality of life, and noise. “The noise from the industrial park is overwhelming,” one resident complained. Wal-Mart said they will plant a “hedgerow” in front of the store that will help to minimize the noise, but the company offered no noise impact study, before and after construction. Still others complained about the economic impacts of the store, safety issues, and taxes. One resident charged that the building will be in the Lansing School District, and that the city of Leavenworth will not benefit from the property tax. An attorney for Wal-Mart said the store will generate more sales tax than property tax and insisted the sales tax will go to Leavenworth. But he offered no data on how many existing stores would close when the supercenter takes away their sales. Planning Commission Chair Christine Thomas told Wal-Mart’s representatives, “I am very concerned about the Wal-Mart in general.” The Commission agreed that an independent traffic study needs to be conducted. But one Commissioner made it clear that accepting Wal-Mart was an act of desperation for him. “We need the economic development or we’re going to turn into an industrial ghost town.” In the end, the Planning Commission voted to recommend that parcel be rezoned, and they passed it onto the City Commission.
Larry Dedeke is the Mayor of Leavenworth. He works as a manager for Luxury and Imports, which is described as “a hometown business.” Readers are urged to email Mayor Dedeke at [email protected] with this message: “Mr. Mayor, you work for a hometown business. You know that your city has lost nearly 10% of its population since 1990. You also know that the existing Wal-Mart in Leavenworth will become blighted property if you allow Wal-Mart to build a supercenter nearby. There are already 3 supercenters within an easy drive of Leavenworth. This project is not going to save you from becoming an ‘industrial ghost town.’ Rather than rezoning land for national chain stores, look to your hometown businesses for growth. A superstore will only close your existing grocery stores. This project offers no added value to your economy, but it will raise your crime rate, increase traffic congestion, while lowering residential values nearby. Don’t abandon your neighborhoods. This size project is simply incompatible with nearby residential living. Reject the Wal-Mart rezoning. If they can’t enlarge their existing store, don’t let them waste more open space in Leavenworth.”