Sometimes Wal-Mart opponents end up winning a battle they thought they had already lost. On April 13, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that city officials in Mentor, Ohio had made a back room deal with Wal-Mart to allow a supercenter to be constructed, and an existing Wal-Mart discount store to go dark. There are 8 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Mentor. The city itself already has a Wal-Mart discount store on Mentor Avenue. But there’s also a Wal-Mart supercenter in Chardon, Ohio only 8 miles away, plus three other supercenters within a short drive. There are approximately 52,000 people living in Mentor. The city boasts of its “incomparable lifestyle” and says “bargain hunters will love shopping in the sixth largest retail center in the state of Ohio!” The city estimates that it has “nearly 600 retail businesses, and a “low 6.25% sales tax” that makes Mentor a “popular destination for shoppers.” Since 1961, the city has been home to the Great Lakes Mall, which, when first built, was the largest indoor shopping mall in the country. It holds 1.5 million square feet of retail space over 125 acres of land. Even with all this retail space, city officials in Mentor want more. Last spring, city officials announced that they were trading up on Wal-Marts. Under the deal, the existing Wal-Mart discount store would be closed, and a new supercenter would open at a mall called The Shoppes of Diamond Center. “It was confirmed by United Commercial Property Group,” city Councilman Ray Kirchner told the News-Herald. “Construction should start sometime next year.” The announcement came as no surprise, since United Commercial announced in 2007 that they were negotiating a 185,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter deal at Diamond Center. Over the past year, the city and the developer said they were just waiting for Wal-Mart to make a decision. But another city councilman admitted that city officials were doing more than waiting. Councilor Scott Marn revealed that Wal-Mart had a private meeting with city officials last May at the International Shopping Center Conference in Las Vegas. While residents in Mentor were picking up the cost of this Las Vegas trip, city employees were wooing Wal-Mart in Vegas. Marn admitted that members of the city council were discussing an actual agreement with Wal-Mart at that private session. “When we met at the ISCS conference we discussed the agreement,” Marn told the newswpaper. “I’m glad it finally went through.” The city has also admitted that the city’s current Wal-Mart store will shut down, but they suggest the closure won’t “happen real soon.” According to councilor Kirchner, “It might not be until 2010.” Mentor city manager John Konrad told the News-Herald, “We’ve had an understanding with Wal-Mart for a long time, so we are certainly glad it’s going to move forward. It’s an expansion of that commercial area, and that’s the direction the city is going. It will be nice to have a big new Wal-Mart.” But one year later, that ‘big new Wal-Mart’ may not happen at all. The News-Herald reports this week that Wal-Mart has changed its plans. “We were working with the city on a proposed project,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper. “We decided we would focus on our existing store and improve the customer experience at that location.” This change of heart is consistent with Wal-Mart’s growth plans, which emphasize enhancing existing stores, and reducing the number of new superstore projects. This dramatic cancellation leaves Mentor officials in a state of denial. “I don’t think they’re abandoning the project, just probably waiting for the economy to be at a better time,” the City Manager contends. Councilman Kirchner said the city had spent a significant amount of money on engineering and wetlands studies, and defending their rezoning decision in court. “It’s been a long road,” he told the News-Herald. “I, for one, hope it goes through eventually.” Along the ‘long road,’ local residents took the city to court. In 2006, a Mentor taxpayer took the city to Lake County Common Pleas Court, charging the city’s rezoning was unconstitutional. The 11th District Court of Appeals backed the city, but the court decision was appealed, and the lawsuit was finally dropped in August of 2008. The City’s Economic Development Director seems to think getting a Wal-Mart supercenter in Mentor would really put his town on the map as a retail mecca. “You’ve certainly heard the often-quoted statement… ‘If you can’t buy it in Mentor, it’s probably not worth having,'” the Development Director told the newspaper. “In a simplistic way, that epitomizes our desire to have them in town. Certainly not everybody in the community shops at Wal-Mart or a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but it adds to the breadth of goods and services that can be purchased here.” Meanwhile, Wal-Mart says that remodeling of its existing store will start by August. “I believe once the remodeled store is complete that the store will be a great asset to the community. It will have fresh look and fresh appeal that I believe our customers will enjoy.” City officials are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief.
Despite Wal-Mart’s very clear statements, local officials continue to behave as if they have a live plan for a superstore. They cannot fully grasp that Wal-Mart has shifted gears, and the superstore plan is dead. In their unabashed enthusiasm to add another grocery store to Mentor, city officials appear to have forgotten the existing merchant base in the city, and the fact that many residents might not approve of a store almost four times the size of a football field. Wal-Mart has changed its focus over the past year on refurbishing existing discount stores into supercentes — so-called ‘in-box conversions.’ This is more economical for Wal-Mart, better for the environment and more sustainable overall. But officials in Mentor still don’t grasp the difference, and are clinging to their superstore as if it were some new form of economic development. They were even willing to down-zone manufacturing land for a meager retail jobs. Readers are urged to email Mentor’s Mayor, Robert M. Shiner, and the other six members of the city council at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Shiner and City Council, You have just dodged a bullet — and don’t even smell the smoke. The cancellation of the Wal-Mart supercenter is the best economic news your community has had in several years. You were making a super mistake by thinking that adding a Wal-Mart supercenter to the Diamond Center was going to add value to your local economy. Because you already have a Wal-Mart discount store, most of the jobs and sale revenues from the supercenter would have been transferred from that discount store. The only new component is a grocery store. No doubt many of the sales at a Mentor supercenter would have been captured from sales at the supercenter in Chardon 8 miles away. This is not economic development. A superstore would not only cannibalize the Chardon Wal-Mart — it would take sales from the existing grocery stores in Mentor. The Council gave this project an unfair advantage, and decided the land use issues before the public even knew about it. Your city manager may think its ‘nice’ to have a ‘big, new Wal-Mart,’ but environmentally its just more sprawl in Mentor for dubious economic gains. The giant retailer is doing many of these in-box conversions, and cancelling superstore projects. Ironically, they have just spared you the expense of dealing with a huge, empty store. If you don’t have a Wal-Mart supercenter in Mentor by now, it’s probably not worth having.”