Residents in Smyrna, Georgia are up against the Wal, and a short timeline as well. Residents in this city of around 45,000 people sent the following report this week: “The first “mall” of the Southeast was built in Smyrna, Georgia in 1954. Belmont Hills is scheduled for redevelopment this year – with an “up-scale Wal-Mart” the crown jewel. Eighty percent of the people contacting the Mayor and their City Councilman are anti-Wal-Mart. The developer is hoping to use tax incentive money to rebuild the area with retail, townhomes, apartments, “greenspace” and a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Help! The plan goes before the City Planning and Zoning committee in May.” The old mall was touted as the “south’s largest shopping center” 52 years ago, with room for 2,500 cars. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper, in the 1990s Smyrna tore down its turn of the century downtown, and replaced it with a new urbanist mix of townhomes, shops and office buildings, “filled with merchants, restaurants and upper- and middle-class residents.” Now the owner of the 487,000-s.f. shopping center wants to tear it all down and build 532 townhouses and a Wal-Mart Super Center. Ironically, when Belmont Hills opened, it helped kill Smyrna’s existing downtown. But then new malls kept opening up even further from the business core, and Belmont Hills fell on hard times. The Sears and JC Penney’s closed in Belmost Hills. But now the developer wants public subsidies to help out the largest retailer in the world. The city has been asked to include the redevelopment in the city’s “tax allocation district,” or TAD. A TAD is a public-private partnership. The owner redevelops the property, which raises the property tax value of the parcel, and the city uses the increased taxes to issue bonds which pay for the enhanced infrastructure needed for the property, such as sewers, roads and sidewalks. In effect, the city pays for these improvements, so Wal-Mart and the developer get improvements paid for by the taxpayers, who could have used the increase money to pay for schools, police, etc. Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon admitted to the newspaper that “About 8 out of 10 people really don’t want a Wal-Mart.”
Mayor Bacon should insist that Wal-Mart and the mall owners pay their own way, and pay their full taxes on the project, since it will bring a signficiant increase in city costs for police, fire, water, sewer, road maintenance. These TAD agreements should be used only for industrial projects which bring in decent-paying jobs. Wal-Mart does not need to be subsidized by anyone. In 2005 they had over $10 billion in profits. Furthermore, the Mayor should listen to what his constituents are saying. If 80% of his calls are against Wal-Mart, he should approach the developer and ask for a project more compatible with the city’s new urban themes.