Rumors about Wal-Mart turned into reality Wednesday when the nation’s biggest retail chain plopped down plans for a 100,000-square-foot store here.
For months Ponderay planning and zoning officials have eyed plans submitted for an unnamed retail store. All of the board members suspected the project, planned for 15 acres off U.S. Highway 95, was backed by Wal-Mart.
But it wasn’t until a final site plan was submitted Wednesday that Wal-Mart’s Colorado consultant, Steve Wilson, said the magic word.
“I wouldn’t say this has all been secret,” Wilson said. “There are just so many things and problems that can happen to a project that we don’t like to make an announcement right away. We like to wait until we can anticipate approval from a city.”
Wal-Mart anticipated right this time. The planning and zoning board approved the site plan for the store, but the company still has a few hoops to jump through. The Ponderay City Council needs to bless the plan and some highway work needs approval from the Idaho Transportation Department.
The new store is planned across the street from Kmart on Kootenai Cutoff Road.
“If Kmart doesn’t have it, I guess I can go to Wal-Mart now,” joked Mike Rogers, a planning and zoning board member.
The store was planned for an area already zoned commercial. The site will include about 600 parking spaces and a traffic light and turn lane on Highway 95.
Construction could begin later this summer and be finished by next spring. Wilson estimates the retail chain will bring about 300 jobs with it, 60 percent of those being full-time positions.
“Wal-Mart has been well-received in this community and we are happy about it,” he said.
Not everyone has welcomed WalMart with open arms. When rumors surfaced about the store coming here some residents and downtown Sandpoint merchants formed a group to oppose it. The group met regularly for about nine months, but only one person showed up at the meeting Wednesday to voice opposition.
“I don’t want it to kill my little downtown,” said Donna Cope, adding she was disappointed no one else spoke up or showed up.
“I guess maybe they feel like we can’t control it anyway or they have resigned themselves to the fact that this area is changing,” she said.
Communities around the country have blanched at the very sight of a Wal-Mart because of the megastores’ reputation for devastating downtown retail cores.
Sandpoint’s downtown is in better shape than most to handle the retail giant. With antique and boutique stores dotting the downtown area, most of the stores sell specialized merchandise that doesn’t butt heads with the fare from Wal-Mart.
Stores such as Kevin Nye’s The Outdoor Experience carry specialized fly-fishing and cross-country skiing gear that won’t be found in WalMart aisles.
“There’s certainly some apprehension with Wal-Mart coming here,” Nye said from his store that has been in Sandpoint since the 1970s. “We’ve heard a lot of rumors about them, but I just don’t think we’ll be competing against them much.”
Retailers like Grant Merwin of Merwin’s True Value Hardware on Third Avenue were reluctant to speak about Wal-Mart. “If Wal-Mart is such a good company, why does it have to be so secretive about its plans?” he asked.
Anyone wondering how Wal-Mart can affect a community’s downtown need look no further than Moscow, where Wal-Mart opened a store in late 1992.
A few downtown retailers wilted under Wal-Mart’s cheap prices and wide selection. But many merchants sharpened their focus and grabbed a niche that Wal-Mart didn’t fill.
In fact, the store most at risk for the coming Wal-Mart in Bonner County could be the Kmart directly across the road from the proposed Wal-Mart site.
Kmart stores sales have struggled nationwide, but especially in markets where Kmart competes directly with a Wal-Mart. The manager at Ponderay’s Kmart couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Future site of Wal-Mart
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