On January 5th, Wal-Mart suddenly announced that it was pulling out of a proposed supercenter off Atlanta Highway in Athens, Georgia (see January 4th. newsflash below). The news left members of the High Ridge Home Owners Association, who bitterly opposed the project, thrilled with the unexpected shut down. Wal-Mart’s collapse came just before a scheduled meeeting of the Athens-Clarke County Planning Commission meeting. According to a report in Online Athens, the latest Wal-Mart plan was for a 220,000 s.f. superstore plus three outbuildings on 47 acres of land. The local attorney representing Wal-Mart, who had written an article in the local paper about why Wal-Mart served the county’s “best interests”, now had to reverse field and explain away the decision. He said the withdrawal was partially based on the negative recommendation by the Planning Department staff. Planning staff objected to the traffic impacts at the location, and geography problems with the site. “The decision wasn’t made until today (Wednesday)”, Wal-Mart’s lawyer said. “One of the problems we had with our system is we don’t know what’s contained in the (planning) staff report until just a few days before it’s heard. It’s our thinking that it’s better to address the questions with the planning department staff and the neighbors in a calm, relaxed environment rather than with everyone at each other’s throats.” Citizens in Athens were clearly beyond the “calm, relaxed” phase of this project, and their opposition to Wal-Mart was called “fierce”. So many people turned out at the first hearing, that the County moved the venue for this week’s hearing to a larger room. According to Online Athens, a letter written to County officials two weeks earlier “may have made the road to a new Wal-Mart store even more difficult”. In the Wal-Mart letter, their Real Estate manager warns Commissioners that the company is prepared to pursue sites outside of Clarke county and close down their existing Athens store. Wal-Mart already has one store in Athens in a shopping center, and is building another superstore near Lexington Road. In fact, there are 5 Wal-Marts and 1 Sam’s club within 30 miles of Athens. The Wal-Mart letter was viewed by local officials as a thinly veiled threat. “I think that most everybody was offended because I guess we just don’t believe them. Here we have a shopping center (where Wal-Mart is now) that’s almost completely empty and you want to tell me that they won’t fit in there?” said Commissioners Marilyn Farmer. “I think any votes they might have had, they lost (because of the letter), and (the vote) was kind of shaky anyway.” Tom Chasten, another Commissioner, said he also saw Wal-Mart’s letter as a threat, but said he wasn’t worried if the company followed through with it. “If in fact they did leave, which is a very real possibility, there would be more opportunities for Athens-Clarke County and maybe even more appropriate for those locations.” Wal-Mart tried to place a different spin on their Real Estate Manager’s letter. Keith Morris, Wal-Mart’s Community Affairs Director, told the media that his company’s letter was not intended to be a threat. “The reason for the letter is that there had been at least one, if not more, officials who were told, not by Wal-Mart, that if the rezoning wasn’t passed, that we would stay in our present location,” Morris noted. But the damage had already been done. “We get threatened with lawsuits all the time,” concluded County Planning Commissioner John Steedman, “and people tell us that they’re going to go to Oconee County. And that’s fine, if they want to go to Oconee County, let them.”
If Wal-Mart ever “threatens” your town, saying they will close their existing store, or move to another county, remember the words of Planners in Clarke County, GA: “That’s fine…If they want to go (to another county), let them”. Wal-Mart said the threatening tone of its communication with local people was not a matter of sour grapes. But area residents say the company’s decision to pull out of this project in Athens has turned those sour grapes into some very fine wine. Another town Slam Dunks Wal-Mart with its fierce opposition.