The folks in Bentonville, Arkansas are acting more mercurial than ever: Here today, gone tomorrow. The company seems to have a hair-trigger decision-making process when it comes to withdrawing from projects. Sprawl-Busters reported a week ago that the Community Development office in Bonita Springs, Florida had rejected Wal-Mart’s plans to put a superstore just off Interstate 75. The superstore was part of a larger, 395,000 s.f. retail footprint being proposed by The Roberts Group. The 68-acre parcel they chose was not zoned for commercial use, so the developer had to ask for a rezoning. Local officials said traffic was a killer for this project, but the Bonita Daily News reported that under Florida law, if the developer is willing to help pay for improvements to the traffic network, the project should not be denied. Wal-Mart didn’t stick around to find out. This week Wal-Mart pulled its horse from the race, telling the local media that the giant retailer is not part of the Roberts Group project anymore. “We are not involved in that proposed project,” a Wal-Mart official said. “It was determined to be not economically viable.” Perhaps Wal-Mart took a second look at the map, and realized the Bonita Springs location was only 10 miles from their superstore in North Naples. This is what the company did a week ago in Lancaster, Massachusetts — suddenly drop out of the running for a store they had fought over for 15 months. Wal-Mart would not tell the media when they decided to drop out of Bonita Springs — just that its decision was “recent.” No specific reason was given. “It was a complete business decision,” she said, suggesting that community opposition and county opposition played no role. This sudden withdrawl from the Roberts Group ends a two year relationship with the developer.
The Roberts’ group infatuation with big box stores is not over. The Bonita Springs project weighs in at 395,000 s.f., but Wal-Mart was the main anchor for the project. The Bonita Springs advisory zoning board will still hear the plan on September 28th. The planning staff in Lee County has recommended against the project because of the traffic increase, which “is expected to place an undue burden upon existing transportation or planned infrastructure facilities within the city,” according to the county’s report. But this is at least the second store in a week that Wal-Mart has backed out of under very ambiguous circumstances. In Lancaster, Massachusetts, where the company battled for 15 months and then collapsed, the company said it was business decision precipitated by the retailer’s plans to slow the growth in new supercenters by 26%, from 270 to 200 this year. Projects like Lancaster, and Bonita Springs — which were facing stiff opposition — were abruptly dropped. Wal-Mart said in Lancaster it “had second thoughts” about the store — but said its decision had nothing to do with locating a store 3 miles from another Wal-Mart superstore under construction. The Bonita Springs trade area was also saturated. It appears that Wal-Mart is not inclined to keep cannibalizing its own stores, but does not want to admit that it has wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing each of these projects. How many more “goose chase” projects will Wal-Mart pursue for months or years — only to suddenly fold? Their withdrawal from these projects may not be good news for shareholders, who financed the wasted efforts, but its great news for opponents in small towns like Lancaster, Massachusetts and Bonita Springs, Florida — both of which are better places for having dodged the Wal-Mart superstore bullet.