Wal-Mart already has a superstore in Lakeland, Florida on Highway 98, plus a smaller discount store on South Florida Avenue. There are a total of ten Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Lakeland — eight of them supercenters. So none of the city’s residents lack access to cheap Chinese products. It was therefore somewhat anticlimactic when Wal-Mart announced this week that its plans for another supercenter on Interstate 4 in Lakeland were now dead. “We’ve reassessed sites all around the country,” a Wal-Mart spokesman explained to the Ledger newspaper. “It’s making sure we’re growing in the right way.” Instead, Wal-Mart is going to go to the site of its existing Lakeland discount store and renovate that one. Thus ends a battle that began in late in 2006 when the company approached city officials with plans for a 207,2065 s.f. store on I-4. At the time, city planners were not exactly thrilled by the prospect of the massive traffic tie-ups that such a project could entail. But this week, Wal-Mart ended the problem by putting a gun to the head of its superstore project. The company spokesman said the decision to pull the trigger on another Lakeland store had nothing to do with traffic or skeptical local officials. Roughly a year ago Wal-Mart planned to go over a “concept plan” with the city, but cancelled the meeting. The project never got on track after that. Wal-Mart chose a parcel that happened to be incorrectly zoned. The land in question was zoned for small business, and the giant retailer would have had to get a rezoning — to which it had no entitlement. Meanwhile, city officials maintained that the local roadways could not handle the traffic volume that this huge store would generate. “Most problems can be overcome with substantial money,” a city economic development staffer told the Ledger, “and the issue was whether they wanted to spend the money needed to get around those problems. They would have had to rebuild the road in significant ways in both directions. It may be feasible, but you’re going to have to move a mountain.” Wal-Mart apparently was not prepared to move the mountain, especially in an area already up to its neck with Wal-Mart superstores.
It certainly didn’t help that Lakeland officials asked Wal-Mart to conduct a traffic study showing the project was feasible. That would have been no problem, because every traffic engineer Wal-Mart employs says the traffic flow will be good looking, and the level of service above average. Still, Wal-Mart never did come back with a traffic plan, and by the time city officials were meeting with Wal-Mart last June, the company was announcing a major retrenchment in new superstore projects for the coming year. Lakeland became a casualty of the corporate downsizing of new stores. The Lakeland store must have looked pretty marginal when Wal-Mart stepped back and looked at how saturated the trade area already was. Residents in Lakeland can breath easily now that the shadow of yet another supercenter has been removed. Instead, the city has approved Wal-Mart’s request to add another 20,000 s.f. to their discount store — enough to add groceries to that location. Just what Lakeland needs: another grocery store. All over the country, Wal-Mart is feeling the effects of its oversaturation of superstores. The retailer’s eyes were bigger than its stomach. Wal-Mart critics are enjoying every new cancellation like watching a storm cloud that suddenly dissipates.