Sprawl-Busters wrote on March 1, 2006 that Wal-Mart’s plans to annex land into Great Falls, Montana had been dealt a setback because of a provision in the city’s zoning code that requires any retail store larger than 60,000 s.f. to get a conditional use permit. Part of the CUP review process requires the Planning Board to support the statement that “The diverse retail economy is desirable in that it provides consumer choice and fosters competition.” The Planning Board deadlocked 4-4 on the annexation, and thus sent a negative recommendation to the City Council. In the interim, local opponents formed a group, Great Falls First, to lobby against Wal-Mart. This week, Wal-Mart took the Fall. The owners of the 50 acres under consideration told the Great Falls Tribune that Wal-Mart was pulling out of the project. Wal-Mart claimed its sudden withdrawal from the project was “due to change in the Great Falls market.” The retailer would not clarify what those changes might be, but told the Tribune, “Those changes forced us to take a step back and look at whether this is the right time for a second store in Great Falls.” Their plans for a 204,000 s.f. superstore included Wal-Mart’s promise to pay for an extension of water and sewer lines to the property. Plans also called for a Lowe’s to be built near the Wal-Mart, and the fate of the Lowe’s project was unclear. Lowe’s made their standard disclaimer: “It’s our policy not to comment on prospective locations until real estate deals are closed. I can confirm that we are exploring opportunities in Montana.” The “changes” in the market Wal-Mart cited are more likely political than economic. The company does not like to go into city council votes unless it is sure it will win. The opposition to the plan by the city’s Planning Board Chairman did not help. “I still remain concerned about the impact that particular business has on communities,” Planning Board Chairman Bill Bronson told the Tribune. “I don’t think it’s a good impact for the community and I think this is positive news.” But Wal-Mart tried hard to keep the real reasons for withdrawal hidden. “We appreciate the strong support we have in Great Falls,” the company stated. “We feel we received the necessary support to move ahead. This decision is absolutely not a reaction to opposition. This is a market decision, not a community decision.”
For now, it looks like Wal-Mart has taken a great fall in Great Falls. The company isn’t being straightforward on the “market” changes that caused this sudden change in plans, but their withdrawal is one of several recently that were driven more by the growing unpopularity of superstores, than by any market forces.