Wal-Mart in their Midst?

St. Albans Messenger, Thursday September 16, 2004

By LEON THOMPSON Messenger Staff Writer

ST. ALBANS CITY –– Amy Caldwell had just changed a light bulb at the Dressing Room when she first saw the computerized photo of a Wal-Mart pedestrian entrance two doors down from her Main Street business.

"Oh, right there on Main Street, huh?" she asked, smirking. "Right there on Lake Street, too, huh?"

Caldwell was one of many downtown St. Albans merchants who offered mixed reactions Wednesday to the Preservation Trust of Vermont's (PTV) concept of planting a Wal-Mart in the heart of the city's business district.

PTV Executive Director Paul Bruhn has proposed an 80,000-square-foot Wal-Mart for the parking lot between Kingman and Lake Streets. The five-level building would contain the store, another 30,000 square feet for office use, and 400 underground parking spaces.

"I think there are better stores to have downtown than Wal-Mart," Caldwell said, citing Kohl's and Bon-Ton as alternatives. "We would need a department store that fits in with the flavor of other shops downtown, the specialty stores."

Fred Kosnitsky, owner of Better Planet Books, Toys & Hobbies, prefers having Wal-Mart downtown than at the proposed site on Route 7-North in St. Albans Town. The PTV's store is about half the size of the one that is on the brink of the town's permitting stages.

"I see it as something that brings real life and energy to the downtown area," Kosnitsky said. "It brings people here. ... A Wal-Mart helps keep many shoppers in the area, so that when they come to Wal-Mart, they come to me."

Kosnitsky said he could compete with Wal-Mart, because he carries a line of specialty books, toys and educational products not offered by mass merchandisers. He had no problem competing with Ames before the store went out of business and left St. Albans, he said.

Other downtown merchants who overlap with Wal-Mart's product line would have to develop a strategy to differentiate themselves, he added.

Joe Bouffard is one of them. The owner of Jack Rixon's Pharmacy said a downtown Wal-Mart would erode his business, especially if it had a pharmacy.

He said developing a strategy, as Kosnitsky suggests, might be futile.

"You can only lower your prices and extend your hours so much," Bouffard said. "It's not going to give you enough business to counter what you're losing."

Yet Bouffard is not nervous. He is confident in his customer base.

"If they want me to survive, they'll trade with me," he said. "If not, they won't. That's really what it amounts to: It's up to the public. That's true for all of us on Main Street."

Bouffard worries about parking and traffic with a downtown Wal-Mart -- and he isn't alone. Every merchant and shopper surveyed by the Messenger yesterday said downtown St. Albans could not absorb the extra traffic the store would attract.

Connie Warden, owner of Chow! Bella restaurant on Main Street, said 400 extra spaces would barely hold shoppers on a regular business day, never mind the holiday shopping season rushes.

Still, she would welcome Wal-Mart to the city, because it uses existing space and extends vertically instead of taking up green space in the town.

"It makes all the sense in the world to use that (downtown) space for that," she said.

Warden is on the economic development committee for St. Albans for the Future, a non-profit group aimed at revitalizing the city's downtown. One of the group's goals is to increase pedestrian traffic; a Wal-Mart would do that, Warden said.

"Anything that brings people in -- except for, let's say, a strip joint or something -- is a bonus," she said.

But how many is too many? The PTV's photos are "cosmetically appealing to the eye at first glance," but there are still many unanswered questions about traffic and parking, said Chat Tsounis, Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce director.

Take, for example, the 400-space parking lot, Tsounis said. Who pays for it? Wal-Mart? The city? Will it be a joint partnership? Will it be restricted to Wal-Mart parking only? And who sets those parameters?

"For those who are not sold on Wal-Mart being on the other side of town, these are proposals that can't hurt the process," Tsounis said. "But this needs more study and research."

Peoples Trust Company employee Jill Caswell, of Fairfield, was out on her lunch time walk when she saw the photographic simulations of a downtown Wal-Mart.

"I don't think it should go in the city," she said. "It would cause too much congestion. There would be too much traffic. We have enough already."

St. Albans resident Amy Neidig -- who had just bought a winter coat at The Unicorn for her 3-year-old daughter, Lonna -- expressed concerns about Wal-Mart traffic endangering pedestrians.

Neidig does not shop at Wal-Mart. She isn't impressed by its merchandise and is leery of reports regarding the company's shoddy treatment of its workers.

Yet she was intrigued by the PTV's photos, and, as she trekked back to her car with Lonna, the girl asked for help winding a toy watch she got at The Unicorn -- for free.

"See that?" Neidig said. "Now, when's the last time Wal-Mart gave you a free watch?"