The City of Aberdeen, Washington is located in Grays Harbor County on the southern edge of the Olympic Peninsula at the convergence of the Wishkah and Chehalis Rivers. The logging and fishing industries are not the job generators they once were, so the town has turned to tourism to boost the local economy, with Aberdeen as the largest retail center in the area.
“Aberdeen is proud to offer a wide variety of big-city services and attractions,” say Mayor Bill Simpson, “with a small-town atmosphere.” The city wants to maintain an informal, casual atmosphere, encouraging tourists to “come as you are!
One of the “big-city services” that decided to “come as you are” to Aberdeen was Wal-Mart. But now the giant retailer wants to get a lot bigger than they are. Wal-Mart store #2037 is on East Wishkah, but the company has recently been involved in a “secret” land deal that has some residents unpleasantly surprised.
The history of this area has been driven by the logging and fishing industries, although in the last few years there has been a concerted effort to replace these with an emphasis on tourism and designating Aberdeen as the largest retail center on the Washington Coast.
According to the Grays Harbor Daily World newspaper, land owned by the Port of Grays Harbor was quietly sold to Wal-Mart several days ago. This sale concerned the head of Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, which describes itself as “a leading provider of training opportunities in tall ship handling, heritage learning experiences for K-12 students, and cultural experiences for individuals and families.”
Captain Les Bolton, Executive Director of the Seaport, is concerned that Wal-Mart expansion plans may put a crimp in Seaport’s operations. Tall ships and Big Box buildings are not exactly compatible land uses.
Bolton told the Daily World that he was caught by surprise by the Harbor’s plans to sell the acreage known as Aberdeen Landing to a big box retailer. Seaport used part of Aberdeen Landing.
Apparently the Harbor failed to warn Aberdeen City Hall about the land deal either. Port commissioners voted to sell the land during a special meeting on the morning of June 18th, catching the rest of the community off-guard.
One of the groups with the most reasons to be unhappy is Our Aberdeen, which has been spearheading an effort to work on zoning issues in this city of only 16,000 people. In fact, Aberdeen’s population has fallen 3.5% from its 1990 population of 16,565. Our Aberdeen did not learn of the sale until after the ink was dry.
The head of the Port says the group put a notice in the newspaper twice about the surplus 5 acres. But Wal-Mart’s name was not evident in any of the notices — apparently at the request of the giant retailer. But a spokesman for Our Aberdeen says the secret sale was just a “deliberate obfuscation to fool the public.” Our Aberdeen challenged the Port about what the legal notice meant and nobody gave him answers until they had sold the property.
The $7 million secret deal sells Wal-Mart the existing five acres where the store’s footprint now exists — plus gives them another two acres of land that will allow the store to add 36,000 s.f. for a full grocery department, so the retailer can take market share away from existing grocers. Wal-Mart was required to allow access to the existing waterfront walkway.
The Seaport uses a dock and a piece of land adjacent to Wal-Mart for moorage of two of its Tall Ships. “I’m certain it will impact us in that it’ll change access and our ability to move things in the upland area,” said Captain Bolton. He told The Daily World that Seaport could lose access to a parking area near the dock for people wanting to board the ships.
Wal-Mart has been coy about calling this expansion a “superstore,” describing it instead as a “full-service store.” But inside it will have a “full range” of food and fresh produce, according to press release to the local newspaper. Wal-Mart claims that the expansion will create 50 “additional” jobs. The company did not specify how many existing jobs it would kill.
Aberdeen’s Mayor Bill Simpson said he only found out about the sale the morning before the Commissioners’ vote. The Mayor said he believes the expansion will be good news, but he added he would go tell the store managers at TOP Foods and Safeway about the project, because “This could impact their business.”
Despite this downside to the project, the Mayor was in front of the line to welcome Wal-Mart’s growth. “One of the best things about this project is not only will Wal-Mart be able to expand but we are putting some under-utilized land to good use without impacting the public uses of Aberdeen’s waterfront. Aberdeen has a number of strong retailers who have developed their niche markets and I don’t believe this expansion will negatively affect their markets.”
The Mayor pointed out that Wal-Mart is one of the largest producers of sales tax in the city. “We need that tax base and that tax base will now stay right here,” the Mayor added. “That’s the best thing about this.”
Port officials justified the sale by arguing that selling the land to Wal-Mart would ensure the city that “Wal-Mart is going to stay where it’s at.”
But in a small “city” that is losing population year after year, the addition of a major new grocer is likely to simply displace existing jobs at the grocers already doing business in Aberdeen. The land deal also begs the question of why Wal-Mart is located on the waterfront to begin with. The public’s enjoyment and access to waterfront land is not helped by converting more and more land to big box retail. This Wal-Mart store should never have been placed near the water to begin with, and expanding it is a larger mistake. Ocean access and big box retail are not compatible land uses.
Readers are urged to email Mayor Simpson at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Simpson, You don’t seriously believe that Wal-Mart’s expansion into groceries means 50 ‘additional’ jobs, do you? Wal-Mart depends on local officials being economically illiterate about the retail business. But your small city is losing shoppers — and when you divide up a shrinking retail pie among more and more players, some stores are going to close their doors, and leave you with empty buildings. Tops and Safeway are not ‘niche’ stores. They compete head-to-head with Wal-Mart.
There is no need for this expansion. Wal-Mart is building smaller superstores these days — as small as 78,000 s.f. They are also remodeling existing discount stores into supercenters, doing what’s called an ‘inbox conversion’ that requires no expansion at all.
You just wasted 5 acres of valuable ocean-side land — and for a big box store that has no business being located in such a prime tourist location. If you want to boost tourism, the last move to make is putting retail boxes near the water. They ruin the view, they increase traffic congestion, and even kick up crime statistics.
This is an overall bad move, and its no wonder that the Port waited until the last minute to tell you about it. You should use your office as Mayor to block the expansion, and then you won’t have to spend time trying to fill the empty Tops or Safeway buildings.”