Citizens in the unversity town of Athens, OH are trying to bestow a degree on Wal-Mart — the second degree. Residents and merchants have organized a group called Save Our Local Economy (SOLE) to fight a plan being proposed by a tax-supported member of their community: Ohio University. Apparently they don’t teach “Wal-Math” at OU, because the University President, Robert Glidden, has promised that Wal-Mart will bring lots of jobs to the area. OU has not only signed an option to lease with a developer from Wisconsin, but it has made it clear that public opposition from residents will not change its position. “We made a commitment to the developer, and we can’t back out of it now.” Although OU is bullish on this project as a form of economic development, the university has admitted in the Athens News that it has no economic impact statement to assess the damage a Wal-Mart might do to the local retail economy, and to public revenues. But just in case, OU has a stipulation in their agreement with the developer that should the land next to the Wal-Mart, which houses a Kroger grocery store, start to see falling sales, that OU will not take it on the chin. Ironically, OU developed the Kroger parcel also, and the grocery stores pays OU a flat rent, plus a percentage of sales. The agreement with the Wal-Mart developer says that the latter will pay OU additional rent if OU’s percentage rent from Kroger’s falls below a certain level per year. The university obviously is familiar with the broker’s concept of “hedging your bet”. But the downtown local merchants, whom Glidden says are “ripping off the students”, get no tax supported benefits from the project, and may in fact suffer greatly from the time and money this state institution has put into this project. The Mayor of Athens suggests that if Wal-Mart doesn’t get into Athens, it will try to locate in one of the surrounding towns that has no zoning ordinance. SOLE responds by suggesting that the city and the county should both develop zoning rules that limit the size of large retail projects, as has been done in several other Ohio towns, and just this week in Clermont, FL. One city Planning Commission member agreed with the Mayor that taking Wal-Mart was “kind of a best of a bad situation.” SOLE has promised the university that there will be a protracted legal battle if OU tries to force a Wal-Mart into the community. That might be enough to send the university’s development team back to class for more studies.
For more information about building size caps, or the phenomenon of universities developing commercial projects, contact sprawl-busters. In Ohio, state universities have been allowed to use their land for commercial projects since the 1960s. But few lawmakers ever envisioned the kind of massive project that OU is now proposing.