Columbia Officials: No Subsidies for Controversial Wal-Mart

December 16, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMidlands residents, regardless of whether they know Wal-Mart has a history of cashing in on taxpayer subsidies, might be wondering if the company aims to do so as it looks to expand into downtown Columbia.

The answer: apparently not.

Much media attention in the Midlands has focused on plans by Wal-Mart to potentially build or otherwise open three or more outlets in the urban core of the Capital City.

The spotlight mostly has shined on a controversial location that evidently is the closest to a project getting off the ground – Capital City Stadium on Assembly Street, the once-longtime home of minor league baseball in Columbia.

The city owns that property; and as such, Columbia residents and taxpayers have a say in its fate.

The lead city official on a possible Wal-Mart project there says it would be the nicest, best-looking shopping center in Columbia.

But be that as it may, a group of vocal opponents is fighting to prevent the city’s nostalgic ballpark from becoming a home to Wal-Mart.

The opponents express environmental concerns related to storm-water runoff damaging an already degraded waterway in the area named Rocky Branch. The Wal-Mart foes also worry that the company’s presence in downtown would hurt locally owned small businesses.

“Our position is that we need a visioning session for Assembly Street,” says Ryan Nevius, director of Sustainable Midlands, a grassroots group helping to mobilize the opposition.

Yet despite keen public interest in this matter, the media scrutiny has not addressed whether Wal-Mart will reach into one of its often reliable bags of tricks and try to pull out some taxpayer freebies to support its Columbia plans.

“No – no public dollars in it, none,” Fred Delk, director of the Columbia Development Corporation, says of a blueprint for the stadium site.

City Manager Steven Gantt confirms the point. “That is correct,” Gantt says.

Glen Wilkins, an Atlanta-based spokesman for Wal-Mart, would not divulge any site-specific information about the company’s intentions in the Columbia market. “We know it’s an area that we want to serve better,” Wilkins said.

Asked about an Assembly Street project, he said, “We don’t even have a letter of intent yet.” Wilkins added however that he is “aware of the location.”

Rather than city subsidies, Delk says the plans for the Assembly Street location would work the other way, with a developer “investing substantial resources” to improve infrastructure in that area.

What about subsidies for other potential Wal-Marts around the city center?

“None of that has been discussed at all,” Delk says.

But at the same time, he says, “They’re not asking for anything. They literally have not requested anything.”

The Columbia Development Corporation is an economic development arm of city government that mainly works on brick-and-mortar revitalization projects. Delk, as director of the entity, has been heading up negotiations on the stadium property.

In those talks, Delk has been working with representatives of Bright-Meyers, one of Wal-Mart’s favorite real estate development companies. The world’s largest retailer and private employer often partners with Bright-Meyers on projects for new stores.

“We have hammered these guys for everything we could get out of them,” Delk says, “and they have come through.”

He cited several infrastructure improvements the developer has agreed to make at the baseball stadium tract, including:

  • Building a covered bus shelter, bicycle lanes and lighted sidewalks along Assembly Street;
  • Changing a blinking yellow light to a regular traffic light;
  • Improving storm-water culverts running parallel to Bluff Road so that flooding, a frequent problem in the area, would be reduced by several feet; and
  • Constructing a greenway from Assembly Street along Rocky Branch to the historic former Olympia and Granby cotton mills, which have been converted into loft apartment buildings.

The developer also has agreed to build a parking garage to reduce storm runoff that results from surface lots, Delk says.

“They’re kind of anteing up here, they really are,” he says of the developer, “and the plan is beautiful.”

Delk, who admits to being no huge fan of Wal-Mart, says the project would not be a typical Wal-Mart strip mall with a dollar store. “That’s not what this is,” he says. “This will be an alternative destination to the suburbs.”

The blueprint calls for a development covering some 20 acres, anchored by a scaled-down Wal-Mart of about 93,000 square feet. That’s roughly three times the size of Publix locations in the Congaree Vista and Rosewood neighborhoods, according to Delk.

The development also would feature another 100,000 square feet of retail space, split among three junior anchor tenants and five smaller stores.

“It’s really, really nice,” Delk says of the design plans, “and I know that’s hard to believe.”

Built out, the project would generate $1.3 million per year in tax revenue for Columbia, and Bright-Meyers is willing to pay the city the full appraised value of the site – $1 million, Delk says. “So, no subsidies at all from anybody,” he says. “So it’s a little unusual.”

Indeed, as The Nerve reported in October, Wal-Mart has a years-long track record of obtaining direct or indirect public support for some of its stores in South Carolina. The taxpayer subsidies have added up to millions of dollars, primarily in the form of infrastructure upgrades.

But this situation is not limited to the Palmetto State.

Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocating corporate and government accountability in economic development, has analyzed the national picture in an effort the group dubs “Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch.”

For local taxpayers across South Carolina, it’s something to keep an eye on as Wal-Mart expands its footprint in these parts.

In May, Gov. Nikki Haley joined Wal-Mart U.S. President and CEO Bill Simon at the State Farmers Market in Lexington County to proudly announce that the company plans to open “dozens” of locations in South Carolina over the next five years.

Maintaining the pattern of public subsidies benefiting Wal-Mart, the small Upstate town of Easley issued $1.7 million in bonds for roadway and other infrastructure enhancements to support one of those new stores.

For Columbia, the Wal-Mart wrangle could be near a decision point, at least in regard to Capital City Stadium.

City Council twice has unanimously approved a contract to sell the site to Bright-Meyers. But the council put the deal on hold after the opposition arose.

Now, a public meeting is scheduled for Monday night to air out the issue, and City Council could move forward on the deal in a meeting it has scheduled for Tuesday. But as of Wednesday afternoon, City Manager Gantt said, “I have not been directed to put it back on the (council’s meeting) agenda.”

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.