Late last year, the Chanhassen City Council voted down a proposal that called for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter in the small southwest metro community.
The action delighted a highly organized group of residents who opposed the project, claiming the store would harm local businesses and the environment and generate needless traffic.
Now, residents in Roseville are mobilizing to fight a Wal-Mart store pitched for a long-fallow patch of land that was once slated for a Costco store just off Interstate 35W.
Controversies over where Wal-Mart locates its stores have played out over the past two decades as the Arkansas-based retailer aggressively expanded to about 2,900 Supercenter stores today. While homegrown Target still rules the Twin Cities' discount retail scene with some 49 stores, Wal-Mart now has 20 stores in the market, including 13 Supercenters -- a number that's growing, even in a still-tentative economy.
Of the eight Wal-Mart stores that have been pitched in the Twin Cities in the past two years, five have sailed through city reviews with little debate like the kind seen in Chanhassen and Roseville. And in some communities, such as Brooklyn Center and Burnsville, Wal-Mart stores have played a pivotal role in efforts to spur economic development.
"In the short run, in an era of a very slow recovery coming out of a recession most municipalities are desperate for jobs," said Ryan Allen, a professor of urban planning for the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "But 10 years out, will it prove to be a wise investment? That remains to be seen."
Sometimes Wal-Mart and its developer emissaries use creative tactics in the site-selection process, especially in the wake of diminishing open land in desirable areas.
"As Wal-Mart has grown in size and number of stores, in some cases they do unusual things," said Dave Brennan, who heads the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. "In Plymouth, they bought a whole shopping center, and in Brooklyn Center, they are redeveloping a defunct Brookdale."
The Roseville site, for example, is considered a brownfield in need of some environmental remediation. At one point, Wal-Mart reportedly considered locating one of its smaller urban prototypes in the mostly abandoned Block E mall in downtown Minneapolis, an idea that failed to catch on.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said, "Many cities see Wal-Mart as a catalyst for development and job creation. From a big-picture perspective, a new Wal-Mart store means positive job growth, not just in the store, but in construction and supplier jobs."
She said stores currently being constructed in Brooklyn Center, Burnsville, Lakeville, St. Cloud and Redwood Falls will employ 850 people.
Perhaps the highest profile Wal-Mart-tethered project is the redevelopment of the old Brookdale mall in Brooklyn Center. For years, city officials fretted as the 1960s-era mall floundered, and several face-lifts sputtered. In 2010, Wal-Mart developer Gatlin Development Co. of Tennessee began redeveloping the 65-acre site at Hwy. 100 and Bass Lake Road into what is now called Shingle Creek Crossing. The project involved demolishing about three-quarters of the mall, and entirely reconfiguring the city's commercial district with new restaurants and stores (beyond Wal-Mart), service streets and pedestrian and trail connections.
Brooklyn Center Business and Development Director Gary Eitel says the $100 million project is progressing nicely, with the Wal-Mart store opening later this year. "Wal-Mart was a very important instrument in the redevelopment," he said.
In Burnsville, the new Wal-Mart store under construction at Cliff Road and I-35W is in an area that was once home to a concrete operation, according to the city's Economic Development Coordinator Skip Nienhaus. "We're taking a very heavy industrialized usage for the site and turning it into a much lighter usage with Wal-Mart," he said.
Other Wal-Mart stores in Lakeville and Blaine are also under construction.
But, inevitably, some projects hit a snag. Wal-Mart bought the aging Four Seasons Mall in Plymouth two years ago with the idea of building a 150,000-square-foot Supercenter. But the city had envisioned a mixed-use development for the spot, and concerns were expressed about a big-box store being so close to nearby homes. A moratorium was placed on development there while the city studied the issue, but the ban was lifted in November. Since then, the city hasn't heard from Wal-Mart, according to Community Development Director Steve Juetten.
"Whatever goes there needs to respect adjacent properties, and we have to be sure traffic can be handled," he said. "We're not saying no to one business over another, we're not here to pick winners. There's a lot of concern about a typical 150,000-square-foot box on the site, be it a Wal-Mart or a Target."
And there's no telling what will happen with the proposed Wal-Mart store in Roseville, where the City Council will consider subdividing the parcel slated for the store at a meeting next month. The land off Cleveland Avenue and County Road C is already zoned to permit a big box store, said Patrick Trudgeon, Roseville's Community Development Director.
In the meantime, some residents recently formed a new group to oppose the Wal-Mart called SWARN -- short for Solidarity of West Area Roseville Neighbors.
"Economic development should focus on living-wage jobs and supporting local businesses," said Gary Grefenberg, one of SWARN's founders. "We need to organize our neighborhoods in west Roseville to articulate a new vision, not just unfettered development."
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752