Trust thrusts Wal-Mart Downtown

St. Albans Messenger, Wednesday September 15, 2004

By LEE J. KAHRS Messenger Staff Writer

ST. ALBANS CITY –– Imagine you are enjoying a sunny afternoon in Taylor Park. All of a sudden, you remember you need new underwear. No problem! You zip across Main Street to the new Wal-Mart in downtown St. Albans.

What? The idea of a multi-level Wal-Mart in the middle of St. Albans City has had local residents scoffing since the Preservation Trust of Vermont first announced the idea in May. Traffic congestion and inadequate parking, residents say, make the idea a pipe dream.

But the Trust believes there may be a light at the end of the pipe. The watchdog group has updated it's May proposal, complete with computer-generated photos that show how downtown would look with the store in place.

Also, recent comments by the CEO of Wal-Mart International show the retail giant is adjusting the way it does business to include smaller, multi-level stores in downtown locations, the Trust says.

The Preservation Trust is a charitable, nonprofit organization, founded in 1980, whose goal is to protect and restore significant historic properties, downtowns and community centers.

It is proposing it's downtown plan to Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott as an alternative to the retail giant's plan to build a 147,000-square-foot store in the northern growth center of St. Albans Town.

Wal-Mart officials have repeatedly stated that they have no plans to scale back the size of the proposed St. Albans Town store.

New Proposal / New Perspective

In May, Preservation Trust Executive Director Paul Bruhn proposed an 80,000-square-foot Wal-Mart be built above the parking lot between Kingman and Lake streets and bordered by Federal Street to the east. A municipal lot, including a parking garage, would remain at ground level.

The updated downtown proposal features a 75,000-square-foot store in a five-level building on roughly the same footprint, between Kingman and Lake Streets. The three lower levels, two of which would be underground, would contain a combined 400 parking spaces. The next level would contain the Wal-Mart store, and the top level would be a 30,000-square-foot office space.

Bruhn said the city recently acquired an option on a vacant piece of property next to the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge on Lake Street. The main entrance to the Wal-Mart would be located there, according to the new proposal. Bruhn said an entrance off of Federal Street may be added.

A pedestrian walkway to the Wal-Mart from Main Street would be built in the alley between the Chow! Bella restaurant and Drinkwater's Jewelry store.

"Having a place downtown where people could buy inexpensive goods and services would be a tremendous boon for downtown," Bruhn said excitedly.

Bruhn said he is even more enthusiastic about the updated proposal since reading the recent comments of a Wal-Mart executive.

Wal-Mart's headquarters are located in Bentonville, Ark. An Aug. 28 edition of the town's paper, the Benton County Daily Record, featured an article on Wal-Mart International being named Retailer of the Year by DSN Retailing Today magazine.

The paper quoted John Menzer, executive vice-president and CEO of Wal-Mart International, saying that multi-level Wal-Mart stores in other countries have influenced the way Wal-Mart does business in the U.S.

"We've learned how to deal with multi-level stores and take care of the customers," Menzer said.

The paper paraphrased Menzer saying multi-level stores are "an example of a best practice that is being implemented back home."

Bruhn took Menzer's comments to heart.

"It shows these folks do learn," Bruhn said. "And I think we're on the cusp of Wal-Mart learning some things from Wal-Mart International."

In Vermont, there is one downtown Wal-Mart, located in Rutland. According to the Benton County paper, there are already five multi-level Wal-Mart stores across the country, one in New York and four in California. There are also plans to build an urban-style Wal-Mart in Atlanta, the paper said.

Wal-Mart International is the the global arm of the retail giant, with 1,150 stores in nine countries including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Mexico, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.

Bruhn points to a proposed Wal-Mart store in Rugby, Britain, as the model for the St. Albans proposal. He said the town's residents specifically asked Wal-Mart to locate a 60,000-square-foot, multi-level store on a four-acre parcel in the downtown, after nixing plans for a store on the town's perimeter.

"It's a great solution there and it would be a great solution here," Bruhn said.

He joked that, ironically, Rugby is "fairly close" to St. Albans, Britain.

Depends on Federal Street

Bruhn is aware of the traffic a Wal-Mart store would add to an already busy downtown here. He said the success of the proposal depends on the completion of the long-delayed Federal Street Extension project.

"The Federal Street project is crucial," Bruhn said. "The downtown Wal-Mart store needs it so that Federal Street becomes as important as Main Street."

The long-touted project, planned to alleviate heavy traffic on Main Street, would create a bypass of Main Street extending from the interstate access road intersection at South Main running parallel to Main. It would utilize Federal and other streets parallel to Main Street, such as Lemnah Drive, located a block west of South and North Main streets.

The new artery will eventually connect to U.S. 7 at a still to be determined intersection, perhaps somewhere near Route 105 on the north side of the city.

Phase I of the extension project was completed in 1999, when the Lemnah Drive extension was built. The city spent more than $250,000, including $145,000 for the purchase of about three acres of land from the New England Central Railway. It is on that land that the Lemnah Drive extension was built

Nason Street, which is located just a block north of the Interstate 89 access road intersection with South Main, became the key linkup for motorists wanting to bypass downtown when traveling south to north.

City Manager Brian Searles has said he has made the extension a priority since taking office last year.

Bruhn said that building a Wal-Mart downtown would increase pedestrian traffic, which he said would decrease the number of cars accessing the area.

"A huge number of people who live within walking distance would shop at this Wal-Mart," He said. "Not everyone who shops here will have to drive car."

Bruhn also said that the city requires 250 parking spaces per 100,000 square feet of retail space. The Trust's proposal adds another 150 spaces to that formula.

"These are issues that really need to be resolved," Bruhn said. "But we believe the Federal Street extension will be sufficient to make it work."

The executive director also said the Trust may solicit a traffic study for the proposal.

Bruhn said he has sent a letter and a copy of the latest proposal to Wal-Mart USA CEO Lee Scott, and a copy to Jeff Davis, developer for the proposed Wal-Mart in St. Albans Town.

When asked what he expected from Scott, Bruhn was realistic, but hopeful.

"My guess is they will tell us this is not their first choice," Bruhn said. "But it will be a long permitting process for the town store."

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Next: St. Albans officials react to The Preservation Trust of Vermont proposal.