Princeton, Minnesota calls itself “A growing community on the Rum River.” Part of the city’s growth plans involved a Wal-Mart supercenter — but it looks like that plan has flunked out of Princeton. The city has less than 4,800 people, yet has three Wal-Mart supercenters within 22 miles in Elk River, Cambridge, and Monticello, Minnesota. Cheap Chinese imports are easy to find in the Princeton trade area. According to Mayor Jeremy Riddle, the city is busy interviewing business already located in its industrial park and its downtown. “The purpose of the interviews was to get a set of demographic data on local businesses and their employees,” the Mayor explains, “as well as gather ideas on what we can do better to help improve the local business climate both in terms of local atmosphere and governmental policies.” Somehow the Mayor reconciled his work to help small businesses and enhance local atmosphere with a Wal-Mart supercenter. The Mayor has spent months interviewing more than 75 businesses, studying the data, and “investigating ways to implement the best ideas.” But on his list of “best ideas” was apparently a Wal-Mart supercenter. A developer had proposed to build “Rivertown Crossing,” a Wal-Mart supercenter on the city’s west side. This week, according to the Princeton Union Eagle, Wal-Mart removed itself from the city’s growth plans, making Princeton the 66th community to see a Wal-Mart supercenter either cancelled or delayed since June of 2007. The city’s Community Development Director broke the news to area officials first, followed by the developer, Thousand Acres Development. According to the developer, Princeton’s sales and traffic projections did not rank high enough for Wal-Mart’s shortened list of new projects. The developer blamed a weak economy as being a factor — yet Wal-Mart claims its customer base has swelled during the current economic downturn. The fact that the City is working with the Mille Lacs County Highway Department and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to replace both of the major river crossings in the city, did not help either. Wal-Mart was apparently concerned that the replacement of the bridges in the next two years could severely impact traffic flow to its store.
Thus ends two years of controversy over this superstore proposal. Wal-Mart has ended its purchase agreement with Thousand Acres. Unfortunately, to accommodate Wal-Mart, the city extended a large water and sewer extension to the Rivertown Crossing project — at taxpayer expense. One City council member revealed about a year ago that the city was talking with a developer about an unnamed big box store. That same council member then purchased an option on a tract of land just south of the proposed project, which would have created a straightforward conflict of interest. In February of 2008, the councilor told city officials that he was bailing out of his option, suggesting that he knew at the time that the Wal-Mart project was not going to happen. In fact, according to the Union Eagle, the councilman made his decision based on the “lack of progress in developing the big box sites” at Rivertown Crossing. Thousand Acres is still pursuing its big box dreams, and says it is “cautiously optimistic” about the possibility. But folks in Princeton who opposed the Wal-Mart, are now very optimistic that it won’t be a supercenter. “Target is very interested and will remain interested,” the developer told the newspaper. “It’s one of those companies that is a couple years away. I think we still know the area of Princeton in general is ripe for a business to move in and supply the needs of the local people. There is a lot of potential in our area and with the existing businesses we have, the more we can support them, the better they do, and the more other businesses will want to move in.” Readers are urged to call Princeton Mayor Jeremy Riddle at 763-389-2040 with the following message: “Being left at the altar by Wal-Mart is a blessing in disguise. Princeton is the 66th community to have a Wal-Mart project implode this past year. This meltdown gives Princeton a chance to step back from the table and ask itself if there is more to life than trying to imitate Cambridge, Minnesota, which has tried to attract every national box store imaginable. You say you have been talking with many small businesses in your downtown about what they need to prosper, and to create a better business climate. I doubt that many of them told you a Wal-Mart supercenter would improve things. And if Wal-Mart was worried about the number of cars that would go by its store, what does that augur for the existing businesses in your small community? If you want to see smaller businesses flourish, put a cap on the size of retail stores, and prevent Princeton from becoming just another roadside attraction. It’s not how big you grow, Mr. Mayor, it’s how you grow big. Protect your small town Minnesota character, because once a big box steals it, you can’t buy it back at any price.”