Wal-Mart no wallflower

Retail giant planning to expand county presence

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter


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Wal-mart's Clark County expansion

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. operates three Walmart-brand stores in Vancouver.

• Battle Ground: Construction is expected this year on a 154,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter on the northwest corner of Scotton Way and state Highway 503 (Southwest 10th Avenue).

• Vancouver: No construction dates set for a Supercenter store at Eastgate Plaza, south of Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard between 137th and 147th avenues. However, Wal-Mart has accepted construction bids for preparing the site of its proposed Salmon Creek-area Supercenter near Washington State University Vancouver.

• Vancouver: Wal-Mart announced in 2012 plans for its first Neighborhood Market to open this summer in Vancouver. The grocery store and pharmacy will occupy a 43,000-square-foot portion of a former 90,000-square-foot WinCo Foods store in the Vancouver Plaza shopping center between Fourth Plain Boulevard and state Highway 500.

• Vancouver: Plans to redevelop the vacant Fred Meyer site at Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards could also be for a Neighborhood Market, although no company name is listed on a proposal submitted to the city to build a new 42,000-square-foot grocery store. Two clues point to Wal-Mart: The listed applicant is PacLand, which commonly develops Walmart stores, and the proposed store's size also matches the 42,000- to 43,000-square-foot market-store concept.

• Portland: The site has been cleared for one of the smallest local Walmart Supercenters, an 85,900-square-foot store at the Hayden Meadows shopping complex east of Interstate 5.

For now, Battle Ground's Walmart site is a blank slate on the northwestern corner of state Highway 503 and Scotton Way, just south of the city's main drag.

But not for long. The community has gone to great lengths to welcome the world's largest retail chain, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to the town's retail mix of mom-and-pops and national chain stores. The city shared with the state the cost of a new $4.2 million intersection, street extension and sidewalks that will smooth access to the Mill Creek Town Center retail complex, which will feature the Walmart as its anchor.

Although store construction has not yet started, the site holds an image of Battle Ground's -- and Clark County's -- future, as the retailer grows into a dominant position in this county.

Maligned for its potential damage to local retailers and traffic impacts when it arrived here in the mid-1990s, Walmart now is getting the red-carpet treatment from Battle Ground leaders who say the town needs its tax revenue and jobs. The opposition hasn't disappeared entirely: some Battle Ground residents tried without success to block the project. But the growing acceptance overall of the retail behemoth, combined with rising demand for its low-priced products, could be all the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer needs to expand beyond its trio of existing Clark County stores.

Wal-Mart's development boom already appears to be brewing throughout the county, according to planning documents and hints from the retail community. And Clark County presents a tempting market for Wal-Mart to dominate.

With a population of more than 431,000, the county is home to one of the Portland metropolitan area's largest cities -- Vancouver, with 163,200 inhabitants. Camas has more than 20,000 residents and

Battle Ground is not far behind with nearly 18,000.

And Clark County also is an affordable market, in terms of development costs for the retailer. That's because Wal-Mart already owns several blank Clark County sites with completed development plans from an earlier push to expand its local presence. And, in the aftermath of the recession, the local retail scene offers an ample variety of vacant shopping centers that open the door for Wal-Mart's smaller Neighborhood Market grocery stores, a model the retail giant prefers to establish in leased locations.

Plans are in the works for Wal-Mart's first Neighborhood Market to open this summer in Vancouver. It will take up a little less than half of the space of a former WinCo Foods store in the Vancouver Plaza shopping center, wedged between Fourth Plain Boulevard and state Highway 500 east of Andresen Road, and will feature "fresh and affordable groceries, as well as a pharmacy," according to Rachel Wall, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.

Retail analysts expect Wal-Mart's current push will include at least three more Neighborhood Markets, in addition to the Battle Ground Supercenter and two other Supercenters in Clark County.

The expansion will likely affect a few grocery store competitors, but Wal-Mart's expanded presence won't likely compete with itself, according to Deborah Ewing, a broker and vice president with Eric Fuller & Associates commercial real estate firm.

"The national retailers have the resources in-house to analyze each site and determine very accurately what the leakage will be with each store," she said.

Besides, Wal-Mart's 42,000- to 43,000-square-foot Neighborhood Market stores are aimed at an entirely different market than the Supercenters. Market store consumers are food-only shoppers looking for convenience and low price, said Pam Lindloff, an associate vice president at NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson in Vancouver.

To Lindloff, the strategy is clear: "If they can attract that segment of the market to their stores, they're just expanding their reach," she said.

Meanwhile, work on Battle Ground's 154,000-square-foot store and its adjoining Mill Creek Town Center retail complex is expected to start this year for a 2014 opening. The store will be Wal-Mart's first new Supercenter since 2006.

But it won't be the area's newest for long.

In January, the company showed signs of reviving long-dormant plans for a Salmon Creek Supercenter by requesting contractor bids to tear down the site's existing buildings on the southeast corner of Northeast 134th Street and 27th Avenue, as The Columbian reported Saturday. And rumors abound that the retailer will finally break ground this year on its Orchards Supercenter store, a project delayed for years by required traffic improvements and a bankruptcy filed by one of the center's developers.

Ewing foresees each new Walmart store -- regardless of the size -- will quickly be followed by the development of new quick-serve restaurants and other businesses that are eager to take advantage of the large volume of consumer trips a Walmart generates per week.

But independent grocery stores and smaller food chains will feel the fallout, according to Lindloff.

"Wal-Mart's presence will put strong pressure on grocery retailers in the market," Lindloff said.

Market share

Others believe Walmart stores have the potential to draw additional business into the community.

"If you have a Walmart in your town, people are coming into your town to do business," said Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce.

On the whole, city leaders welcomed the project as they worked with Mill Creek's developers in charge of marketing the property. City leaders say they did not know a Walmart store was involved until the company announced its intent in November. Some citizens at the time tried to block the project, which received no public comment during its planning stages when Wal-Mart's involvement was not known.

Battle Ground officials expect work to start just as soon as it clears a complete engineering review.

"The (city's) engineers have been working hard to get it reviewed," said Robert Maul, Battle Ground's community development director.

Merchants who've survived Walmart development in other communities advise Battle Ground shopkeepers to be prepared for the entrance of the 10,300-store chain, known for rock-bottom prices due to an ability to buy massive volumes of merchandise. Some see strong customer service as critical to their survival.

"We maintained the same staff," said Mike Golik, owner of a True Value Hardware store in Woodland, where Wal-Mart opened a Supercenter in early 2011. "Everyone is trained to help people with paint so customers don't have to wait."

Golik said the strategy helped his business survive Walmart's arrival, an overall decline in consumer spending and competition from another startup hardware store in Woodland. He also has grown accustomed to drawing a smaller share of the market in some departments.

"I've seen reduced sales in lawn, garden and outdoor products," Golik said.

Some Battle Ground business owners are preparing for a similar setback.

"I'm going to be on edge and try everything to keep my market share," said Mike Hardin, the owner of Battle Ground Printing. His strategy could include investments in new equipment for his business, which prints everything from T-shirts to vehicle wraps, and employs five people.

On a state level, Wal-Mart employs more than 18,000 Washington residents. The nation's largest retailer, the company last year reported sales revenue of $444 billion.

Hardin also plans to increase his company's efforts to support the Battle Ground community to encourage local residents to patronize his business. Hardin, who is also the chairman-elect of the 200-member Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce, said he is optimistic about Wal-Mart's effect on the town's economy.

"They're bringing jobs and they're bringing a tax base," Hardin said. "And that's what the free enterprise system is all about."