In February of 2004, the city of Lee’s Summit, Missouri published a Downtown Community Visioning Study, which produced this vision for the center of the community: “Downtown is the heart of Lee’s Summit; a commercially vibrant, family destination. It is an urban village with a mixture of uses, including specialty shops and restaurants, compatible residential development, and a City Hall that makes an important civic statement. It is a place of experience — people walking, music playing, events happening… a public environment.” The city asked businesses currently operating in or on the fringe of the Downtown Core to evaluate the strengths and advantages of operating in the downtown area. The most cited asset was the existing diversity and mix of small, independent retail stores. A small-town feel and “quaintness” of the Downtown Core was ranked second. When asked to list concerns or constraints, the list included, “Existing Wal-Mart zaps energy from downtown,” and “Need to stop bad development.” Lee’s Summit already has a Wal-Mart discount store on Sam Walton Lane, and that store has pulled sales out of the ‘public environment’ the city is trying to revitalize. There’s a Wal-Mart supercenter only 9 miles away in Raymore, Missouri. The giant retailer did the city a great favor at the end of May when word leaked out that a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter in Lee’s Summit was being withdrawn. Or, as the Summit Tribune put it, “Nevermind.” The timing of this pull out couldn’t have come for a more embarrassing time for the city. It’s Planning Commission had just voted unanimously to approve a rezoning for the Wal-Mart on Highway 291 and 150. Immediately after the vote, Wal-Mart pulled its plans for a 176,350 s.f. store off the table. Part of the reason for the withdrawal was likely the $1.5 million that the retailer had agreed to pay to bring electrical, water and sewer lines to the property, plus the $1.2 million in road improvements that added to the bottom line. Wal-Mart gave no advance warning to city officials that their plan was about to implode. The company made local officials go through their rezoning vote as if a live plan was still in the works. “We were surprised they would withdraw so late in the process,” said the city’s deputy director of planning and development. One Planning Commissioner told the Tribune, “We hadn’t had any indication of that before the meeting.” Wal-Mart told the newspaper that they withdrew because they were not willing to agree to provide access to land to the south of their store — land they do not control. “We were extremely concerned about a requirement that would provide cross access to a property we don’t own,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. The city wanted Wal-Mart to allow their lot and entrance drives to be accessible to an undeveloped property near their store. “That would have required us to reconstruct a detention basin, and the access would have run almost directly into the garden center,” Wal-Mart’s lawyer explained. Wal-Mart said it had gone “above and beyond” in agreeing to upgrade the sewer and electric lines through a parcel to the north of their store. “Wal-Mart had worked with staff, and felt like they had gone as far as they could,” the lawyer said. Wal-Mart made no commitment to any other interest in Lee’s Summit.
If the Wal-Mart supercenter had opened, the Wal-Mart discount store in Lee’s Summit would have closed, leaving the city with a dead Wal-Mart. That would have made the 5th ‘dark store’ in Missouri, in addition to the empty Wal-Marts in Kansas City, Louisiana, Maryville, and Raytown, Missouri. Wal-Mart’s departure actually gives Lee’s Summit a new opportunity to strengthen its downtown, long a concern for the community. Readers are urged to email Lee’s Summit Mayor Karen Messerli at http://www.lees-summit.mo.us/content/Contactus.cfm, with the following message: “Dear Mayor Messerli, Now that Wal-Mart has left you at the altar, you have a great opportunity to address some of the concerns that citizens expressed in your Downtown Visioning Study. The existing Wal-Mart discount store in Lee’s Summit has drawn many sales out of the downtown. But looking ahead, you can stop “edge development” of big boxes in Lee’s Summit by adopting a cap on the size of retail stores. The city should also consider putting in place a demolition bond that requires any big box owner vacating a store for 12 months or more to pay for its demolition. Lee’s Summit has to decide if its core downtown is worth protecting. Giving large developers like Wal-Mart the chance to move their store just so they can grab more market share, makes little sense for the rest of your business community. It’s not how big you grow, Madame Mayor, it’s how you grow big. You narrowly missed having an empty Wal-Mart. Take action now so that you’re not left holding the box.”