WAL-MART IN THE WORKSJan 4th, 2011 | By Terri Sercovich | Category: top story
New retail shopping development in BC causes controversy
Plaquemines Parish, in particular Belle Chasse, has consistently thwarted the establishment of national chain stores, protecting locally owned small businesses.
In the past, zoning issues and an inability to get necessary permits have been reason enough to stop the building plans of Winn Dixie and Walgreens, but this time the site of a new shopping center – including a Wal-Mart – is zoned approximately.
Realm Realty has been in negotiations and under contract for about two-and-one-half years to develop the property adjacent to the SpringWood Estates subdivision, at the corner of Woodland Highway and Highway 23 in Belle Chasse.
Jeffrey Moore, the founder of Realm Realty, has developed 2.5 million-square-feet of shopping centers and single tenant buildings across eight different states, with national retailers like Starbucks, Office Max, Kroger and Outback Steakhouse. The Belle Chasse Village Shopping Center that he intends to build now will boast a 115,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, and nine spaces for other shops, restaurants and a bank.
Realm Realty would purchase and develop the land, and sell a piece of it to Wal-Mart to put their store on.
“Wal-Mart has approved the deal,” Moore said. “It’s about 60 percent department store, and 40 percent full-service supermarket, which the parish doesn’t currently have.”
The Wal-Mart design for Belle Chasse would be the first of its kind in Louisiana; it would offer much of the same amenities as a Wal-Mart Supercenter – groceries, pharmacy – but at about half the size.
Several potential tenants have already expressed interest in the available building space. Moore said he would like to see a combination of both chain and local businesses in the shopping center. “There’s not a lot of retail currently in the parish and this will fill that need,” he said.
In its third year, the shopping center is anticipated to generate about $100 million in total volume, about $4 million of that would be collected by Plaquemines Parish in sales tax revenue, according to Realm Realty’s calculations. Moore estimated the property tax on the land would generate between $325,000 and $370,000 for the parish. The center is also expected to create 400 jobs.
“I don’t live [in the parish], but if I did, I’d probably save $20 a week in gas to not have to travel across the Intracoastal Canal to do my shopping,” Moore said.
“It’ll help with residential sales and values because it’s an amenity to have a Wal-Mart and stores near where you live,” continued Moore. “It will help with residential sales and values long term.”
Director of the Plaquemines Parish Economic Development Stan Mathes has spoken with Moore about the development concept. After Realm Realty identified the property and talked to the property owners, the company took an option out on the property, did some preliminary plans and then, about a year ago, made a call to the parish government, said Mathes.
“Because of the Master Plan, there was a moratorium put on strip malls,” Mathes said. “[Realm Realty] came back and still has the option on the property.”
The Comprehensive Master Plan, developed by community members and local politicians, lays down the vision and overall roadmap for the parish’s future. It will dictate where commercial, industrial, agricultural and residential areas in Plaquemines are allowed to be developed. The plan is scheduled to be reviewed and adopted in Spring 2011.
The project was originally conceived in a different set-up, but through talks with Plaquemines Parish government, changes were made.
“They first brought that project to us with a Winn Dixie there and 15 other stores, and my job is to look at the welfare of the traffic, the drainage, and everything that could impact the parish negatively,” said Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser.
“First off, my opinion was that it is too much in that small space,” Nungesser said.
Realm Realty came back months later with fewer stores, and built in landscaping, such as retention ponds to prevent flooding and a row of trees to act as a noise buffer.
Nungesser said he was shocked by all of the responsive alterations made to the layout.
One of the other big changes made to the design plans is the addition of an access road. The road would run parallel to Belle Chasse Highway, and Nungesser said it would “definitely keep the traffic off of 23.”
Moore confirmed he is talking to the parish about a road that would run through the property to alleviate traffic at the intersection of Highway 23 and Woodland Highway.
While the walls of Plaquemines Parish’s resistance to national chains have slowly come down – within the last 15 years fast food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Subway have all rooted themselves on Highway 23 – some residents are still hesitant to support a Wal-Mart in the parish.
Jeff DiMarco, owner of Plaquemines Pharmacy, found out about the potential Wal-Mart and shopping center from another local businessman about one month ago.
“My first reaction was, ‘Oh no, here we go again,’” DiMarco said. “It was the same reaction with the Winn Dixie that was proposed a few months back.”
The original plans for the Belle Chasse Village Shopping Center included a Winn Dixie, but after reformatting, came back with a Wal-Mart instead.
Wal-Mart hurts small business, whether it’s a pharmacy, clothing store, grocery store or florist, said DiMarco.
“Anything up and down Highway 23 can potentially be affected by it,” he said.
Business aside, DiMarco still doesn’t want a Wal-Mart in his neighborhood.
“I worked for Wal-Mart for 10 years,” said DiMarco. “I know what they bring to the table: low wages, a large percentage of their employee staff is minimum wage, unskilled, part-time labor.”
Plaquemines Parish Councilman Jerry Hodnett, District 3, echoed DiMarco’s concern for local businesses.
“I’m adamantly opposed to a Wal-Mart coming to Belle Chasse,” said Hodnett. “It would destroy our mom and pop stores. I would definitely not support anything like that.”
But one of the incoming council members, PV Griffin, District 1, can see the benefits of having a shopping center in the parish.
“A lot of people go to the Wal-Mart in Jefferson Parish, so having a Wal-Mart in Plaquemines would keep the tax dollars in the parish,” said Griffin.
“It’d be competitive, but we have to make progress,” Griffin continued. “We have to move Plaquemines forward and I think there are enough people here that every business is going to be successful. I don’t think a Wal-Mart is going to put a dent in our businesses.”
Indeed there are a lot of small business owners in the parish, but there are also some very large and established businesses. Mathes said Chevron, ConocoPhillips and the military base are examples of large businesses that are present in Plaquemines Parish, too. While Mathes’ observation is correct, some say Plaquemines Parish has been slow to support large businesses in the retail sector.
Kirk Lepine, incoming councilman for District 3, said he is leery about the shopping center’s proposed location.
“I am more worried about the traffic,” said Lepine. “I’m not against growth. We need to solve a problem before we create a bigger problem. I’m not happy about putting it in the big metro part of the parish. Before we start anything, I’d like to see some start of solving our traffic issues.”
“From what I’ve seen, I see a serious problem with congestion on that corner,” said Councilman Stuart Guey, District 4, reiterating Lepine’s sentiment about the state of transit in Belle Chasse, which is often gridlocked at rush hour.
“My gut feeling is that if they do get a permit to come in, then we’re going to lose a lot of our mom and pop operations in Belle Chasse and I just don’t think the people want to lose that type of an atmosphere,” said Guey. “We have a community that is pretty unique and to allow a development of that size would change the complexion of Belle Chasse.”
Several of the other council members were contacted for comment, but either were unavailable due to the holiday or declined to make a statement.
In an effort to preserve the livelihood of Plaquemines Parish that he deems is in danger, DiMarco had some suggestions for alternative uses for the shopping center property. “Develop something that the parish doesn’t have,” said DiMarco. “A nice upscale banquet hall, a bowling alley, something for our kids to do. Or a six or eight screen cinema, something that will contribute to the community without taking away somewhere else. It will draw in from other areas, but you’re not doing so much damage to the business community.”
Nungesser said he has had people come to him with ideas like DiMarco’s, but those too are not feasible, in that financially, a recreational space will get outbid by a experienced commercial developer backed by Walmart, the world’s largest public corporation by revenue (according to Forbes Global).
“Some residents have said they’d love to put a park there,” said Nungesser. “What we would be willing to pay for a park wouldn’t be close to what [Realm Realty] would be able to.”
Mathes said part of his job is to make the people aware of the Belle Chasse Village Shopping Center concept and similar projects. He has already presented the idea at the Plaquemines Association of Business and Industry board meeting and also at the Plaquemines Parish Economic Development board meeting. Neither board has taken a position on the proposed shopping center in Belle Chasse.