Wal-Mart has been telling local communities since the summer that its plans now call for expanding existing discount stores into supercenters, rather than totally new construction. The company has been breaking deals left and right since the corporation announced in June a major slowdown in their growth plans for new supercenters In recent months, the retailer has suddenly dropped out of several projects, including Hillsborough, New Hampshire and Lancaster, Massachusetts. Now a third New England community is afraid that Wal-Mart is giving them the slip. City officials in Belfast, Maine have bent over backwards to change their zoning restrictions to let Wal-Mart get around a ban on large stores. The city has spent months trying to pave the way for Wal-Mart. According to the Bangor Daily News, city officials are now concerned that Wal-Mart is getting cold feet in Maine. The Belfast City Manager told the newspaper this week that he got the impression that Wal-Mart was “lukewarm warm” about building in Belfast. The retailer apparently said it was still interested in Belfast — but a specific site was not under review. This is an about-face for Wal-Mart, which indicated as recently as this summer that they were ready to move fast in Belfast. “They are not being very specific. When we met with them face to face they were very specific. … They didn’t equivocate at all in June,” the City Manager told the newspaper. “I do not have any sense that Wal-Mart is actively pursuing this and I don’t have any sense that they are not.” The manager added, “If it’s all for naught, that’s unfortunate. I do think it’s fair for the council and community to realize that there are things outside of Belfast that affect us. If they have changed their retail strategy, there’s not much we can do about it.” The City Council in October finally decided to change its zoning regulations on a parcel of land off Route 3, to allow big box stores. This process has been going on since 2001, when the city passed a “cap” on the size of big box stores at 75,000 s.f. The latest zoning change, however, allows the city to enter into ‘contract rezoning’ in which the city has the power to adjust the design and size of a big box store.
The City Manager was clearly spooked by the sudden Wal-Mart withdrawal in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Last week, Wal-Mart was quoted in the New Hampshire papers as saying the retailer was now focusing on expanding existing discount stores into supercenters. “It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make due to the fact the we had so much support by the town and by elected officials,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said about the Hillsborough implosion. “We made recent announcements as a company that we were going to scale back a lot of our supercenter growth, and the Hillsboro project … fell into that category.” Belfast’s Mayor Walter Ash said he knew about the Hillsborough situation, but also understood that big corporations often make decisions that make little sense to small communties. “The council has done a lot of work to create a site for a large store and I hope a store will come,” the Mayor told the Bangor Daily News. “I won’t name any store, but I’d like to see more opportunity for people to have a place to shop.” There are 3 Wal-Mart stores within 30 miles of Belfast, including a superstore in Brewer, Maine. The citizens group Belfast First is hoping that the City Manager is correct, and that the “lukewarm warm” attitude at Wal-Mart grows as cold as the winter that is rapidly descending on Belfast.