It appears that one Wal-Mart supercenter is enough for now in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Superstore #1935 is located on Town Centre Drive in Johnstown, roughly 14 miles away from another supercenter in Ebensburg, 18 miles from a third superstore in Blairsville, and 21 miles from a fourth supercenter in Somerset. This central Pennsylvania trade area is already flooded with supercenters. So residents in Johnstown are likely sighing with relief this week, upon hearing that the community won’t be the site of a second Wal-Mart superstore. After all, the demographics just aren’t very encouraging. In 1990, there were 28,134 people in Johnstown city — but by 2007, the population had plunged to only 21,832. Almost a quarter of Johnstown’s consumer base has disappeared over the past 17 years. Another Wal-Mart would simply cannibalize their existing store, and take more market share from those retailers still standing. This was not an economic development project — and it appears Wal-Mart realized that. According to the Tribune-Democrat, local officials have given up hope that Wal-Mart would expand into their downtown. This week that fantasy ended. “We’re simply not a top priority as opposed to other, high-growth areas,” Ron Repak, Johnstown Redevelopment Authority executive director told the newspaper. The large retailer’s interest in a second Johnstown superstore came from an unlikely source. Democratic state Senator John Wozniak sent the company a letter last year asking Wal-Mart, and other big box stores to consider Johnstown as a site. This was before Wal-Mart store managers began lobbying their workers to vote for Republicans in the presidential race. Wal-Mart actually took Wozniak up on his offer, and visited Johnstown last year, showing interest in the downtown, as a way to relieve pressure on its other nearby stores. But now a more sober assessment is prevailing in Johnstown. The head of the Redevelopment Authority did not rule out all hope, but noted the Wal-Mart proposal was “not a dead issue or completely off the radar screen.” The screen is dark however, since no more meetings with the retailer have been scheduled.
In trying to explain Wal-Mart’s change of heart, the newspaper pointed out that in June of 2007, the retailer announced plans to slow down its construction of new superstores, adding 25 million to 27 million square feet of store space domestically in fiscal year 2009 and 20 million to 22 million square feet in fiscal 2010 — down from 45 million square feet added in fiscal 2007. But the head of the Redevelopment Authority says he’s not giving up on his quest for more big box stores. “We’ll keep trying,” he told the Tribune-Democrat. “We definitely have a retail gap downtown and west of the city.” The city of Johnstown says it is located “in the rural mountains of Pennsylvania… a center of history, family and economic activity. From the Johnstown Flood Museum to our friendly neighborhoods and High Tech companies, see what The City of Johnstown has to offer.” Known for its devastating flood of 1889, the city apparently wants to be flooded with retail sprawl too. Mayor Thomas Trigona says, “My political philosophy is simple — do what is best for the citizens of Johnstown.” That policy should lead the Mayor to put in place better controls for his small town — and not let a tide of superstores swamp the community. Readers are urged to contact City Manager Curt Davis at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mr. Davis, Johnstown has felt the ravages of at least three floods, and over the years a loss of more than 16,000 steel worker jobs, including Bethlehem steel 16 years ago. There was a time in Johnstown when steel mills pumped in a payroll of over a million dollars a week into the Johnstown economy. But today you can’t recreate that wealth through national big box retail stores, which drain money and jobs from your community. For a community your size — with a declining base of households — it makes no sense to turn Johnstown into a Wal-Mart ‘company store’ town. They have enough market share already. News of their apparent withdrawal from a second Johnstown store is good news for your local economy — but now its time for you and Mayor Trigona to take the lead on the growth issue, by leveling the playing field. It’s time to amend your zoning code to place a cap on the size of retail buildings. If you want to rebuild your downtown, you won’t do it with more big box stores. Limit the superstores, and grow your downtown. Johnstown does not need another big box wash out.”