The Athens, Pennsylvania Planning Commission has put a hold on Wal-Mart’s plans to expand its discount store there into a supercenter. There is a 104,000 s.f. discount store at 1887 Elmira Street. The nearest supercenter is 23 miles away in Horseheads, New York. Athens, located in Bradford County, has a population of just over 5,000 people. The Wal-Mart proposal for Athens calls for the construction of a 175,000 s.f. superstore on the site of the former Bob’s Honda — which is directly behind Wal-Mart’s current discount store. Their current store is 104,000 s.f. according to the Morning Times newspaper. This week plans were put on hold because the township wants its engineering consultant to review the company’s revised plans. The township had begun to review the plans, but Wal-Mart has changed its footprint to add another 10,000 s.f. to the store, making it a 185,000 s.f. store. The retailer is also expanding its garden center plan, and eliminating the tire and lube center. The existing store will be torn down, and the Wal-Mart lot shifted slightly to the north. Some of the parking lot’s asphalt covering will be “converted back to green space,” the newspaper reported. The new store’s entrance will be located on Elmira Street exactly where the old store’s entrance was. The new building will expand the size of the existing store by 78%. Over the past 17 years, the population in Athens township has increased by only 267 people, so the new store is designed to take away market share from existing food stores, which are mostly Mom and Pop operations in this small town. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has told planning officials in Athens that there will be no need to modify the roadway near the entrance, and that the highway occupancy permit will not need to change, despite the significant traffic increase that will take place as this store almost doubles in size. Now that Wal-Mart owns the Bob’s Honda lot, trucks coming to the store will have their own access road to the back of the store off Winslow Street.
Officials in Athens, Pennsylvania have no need to approve this proposal, or even to be spending any time on it at all. The existing Wal-Mart in Athens is 104,000 s.f., which is large enough for the retailer to convert its existing store into a supercenter without expanding its footprint at all. Wal-Mart could renovate the interior of the store into a supercenter, as it has done with other stores this size, and avoid the permitting process, create almost two acres of “green space” and end up with a less expensive, more sustainable store than the huge superstore they have in their plans. This process of reconfiguring existing stores is called an “in-box conversion,” and public officials in communities like Athens should be insisting that an existing store nearly two times the size of a football field is large enough for a small town, and that a larger facility is not in scale or character with the rest of the built environment in their community. The proposed Wal-Mart in Athens would be the larget retail building in the history of this small community. Wal-Mart can have its grocery, and its discount store doesn’t have to be torn down, by doing an in-box conversion. Readers are urged to call the Athen Municipal offices at (570)888-2325 and leave a message for Planning Commission member Cliff Cheeks: “Dear Commissioner Cheeks, the Wal-Mart expansion is totally unnecessary. Wal-Mart should not be allowed to tear down its ‘old’ store just to build a larger one. Ask them first to explain why they can’t just do an ‘in-box conversion’ that would turn their existing store into a supercenter. That way they would need no township approvals, no permits, and no controversy. They have done this elsewhere, and should be asked to consider it in Athens. If you allow this huge superstore to move forward, all you are doing is taking sales from existing merchants, especially your local grocery stores. Don’t look at this project as a jobs and revenue plan — it’s just shifting existing market share to a national chain store. You know that the township’s population has barely inched forward over the past two decades — so suddenly increasing Wal-Mart’s footprint by 78% is only going to capture sales at other stores — because you don’t have more consumers to absorb all this square footage. Little Athens does not need a big superstore. This proposal is environmentally wasteful. You can’t buy small town quality of life on any shelf at Wal-Mart. But once they take it away from you, you can’t buy it back at any price.”