“I am a business person,” explained St.Petersburg City Councilor Larry Williams, “and I always think that encouraging business is usually good. In this case, I have got a lot of reservations. I am worried about Wal-Mart coming there and basically taking all the little businesses and putting them out of business.” That just about sizes up a 210,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore being proposed for a heavily-wooded 30 acre site at 54th. Ave. S and 31st Street. The land is owned by a Baptist Church that has been trying to develop retail uses on its property for several years, much to the chagrin of their neighbors. Wal-Mart is trying to get the city to rezone the land into “commercial general”, even though 75% of the property is zoned for single-family homes, and the remainder is zoned for small offices. On another side of the property is the United Church of Christ, which is strongly against the Baptist Church’s plans to sell out to Wal-Mart. “The church opposes commercial development on that land,” one church spokesperson said, “and one of the main reasons is because there is so much underutilized commercial property in the area.” Other neighbors, like Rick McChesney, have pointed out that the land is now a habitat for a mating pair of eagles and other wildlife. Instead of trees on the property, Wal-Mart has told neighbors they will have a 12 foot wall to buffer them from the new store. The head of the area Chamber of Commerce says he is “personally ecstatic” about the Wal-Mart plan, because it will create jobs, etc. He has only Wal-Mart’s word on that, since no study of economic impacts has been conducted. Wal-Mart told residents that their store would bring about 450 jobs that paid between $6 and $10 an hour. Wal-Mart did not discuss how many similar jobs at other area businesses would be eliminated if they build their store. Even though the land is not zoned correctly, Wal-Mart’s “community affairs” director told the St.Petersburg Times that the company had studied the market “for a considerable period of time” looking at a variety of locations. “And every criteria we looked at brought us back to this site,” Wal-Mart confessed, “that is the best location in the market.” The history of rejected retail projects on this residential land apparently has not deterred Wal-Mart from plunging forward. To allay local fears that Wal-Mart would devastate local businesses, the company spokesman explained: “It is not a case of going in and strip-mining the entire parcel and just building our store.” No, says, Wal-Mart, if they build at this location, “it would be probably the most unique Wal-Mart store in this part of southern Florida,” which is saying alot for a company that typically builds one-story, flat-roofed buildings without windows. All these promises of a “park” like Wal-Mart have apparently not impressed City Councilor Williams. “If the situation is overwhelming, and people don’t want Wal-Mart there,” Williams says, “I feel I am going to have to find a way to preserve what neighbors want.” And that, for St.Pete’s sake, is certainly not a Wal-Mart supercenter as a neighbor.
For further information about the Baptist Church’s efforts to unload a Wal-Mart on their neighbors, contact Mary O’Toole at 813-865-1074.