UNC-Asheville Blue Banner Mar. 3, 2010

Wal-Mart Supercenter slated to open in early summer

Justin Stewart
Staff Writer

The planned reopening of an area Wal-Mart store this summer draws mixed feelings from some concerned locals.

After relocating to nearby Airport Road in October 2008, the retail mogul's recently renovated Hendersonville Road location is slated to reopen in May or June. The 89,000-square-foot building will expand into a larger, 115,000-square-foot Supercenter store, according to Wal-Mart representatives.

"There are two other Supercenters within five or 10 minutes in either direction from there. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me," South Asheville resident Ben Kiteley said.

While the Airport Road Supercenter sits just a few miles away, the threat of traffic congestion near the Hendersonville Road store worries some locals, like Kiteley.

"Traffic is already like living in Atlanta on that section of 25," said the 32-year-old environmental consultant.

Renovations to the store, which originally opened in 1987, began shortly after its relocation nearly a year and a half ago. According to a Wal-Mart statement in fall 2008, the remodeling was estimated to take about a year.

Corporate representatives declined to comment about the delay of the store's reopening, but a representative from Wal-Mart's home office in Bentonville, Ark., said the phases of remodeling are on schedule for the store to open this summer.

This issue is nothing new to the discount department store powerhouse. According to local news reports, area Wal-Mart stores experienced opening setbacks in the past, partly due to the slow acquisition of construction permits and pending environmental clearance.

Concerns about wetland disturbance around Arden's Supercenter grounds originally thwarted its opening. According to a 2008 Wal-Mart press release, the Airport Road site had to obtain approval from the N.C. Division of Water Quality before it finally opened its doors for business on Oct. 28, 2008.

According to reports, Fortune magazine's "Most Admired Company" for 2009 not only passed county approval for that store in 2006, it also agreed to pay into the state's Ecosystem Enhancement Program. Money from the program funds projects that prevent disruption to streams and wetlands.

Wal-Mart practices methods of low-impact development when they build or renovate stores, according to representatives. These eco-friendly measures emphasize the sensitivity of a building site's natural surroundings during construction.

Wal-Mart's east Asheville Supercenter initially generated public outcry when it opened in 2005. Built on the grounds of the old Sayles Biltmore Bleachery, locals said the store's proximity to Asheville Mall would further congest an already problematic traffic area.

"I used to take River Road as a shortcut to Biltmore Avenue," Kiteley said. "After the Wal-Mart went up there, it turned mall traffic into an even bigger mess."

Wal-Mart's ensuing traffic problems on River Road and Tunnel Road were not the only concerns. Many locals said the presence of big-box entities like Wal-Mart hurts or ultimately eliminates the area's small businesses.

"With three Wal-Mart stores in Buncombe County alone, one would think that those mom-and-pop-type businesses would have already folded by now," said retail associate and Asheville native Chris Guzman, 30. "A fourth store in the area certainly doesn't help their situation, though."

A little more than eight months ago, a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in Weaverville. Guzman said although the northern part of the county needed the store, the impact on small businesses in that region would be especially noticeable.

"They really only had Roses out there," Guzman said. "Now, there's a Lowe's and a Wal-Mart. That puts a lot of pressure on what smaller grocery and hardware stores are still left. It kind of makes you feel sorry for the little guys trying to make an honest living."

While a fourth Wal-Mart in the county seems somewhat excessive, some locals said the anticipated 300 jobs it will bring to Western North Carolina would be most welcome.

"In this tough economy, nobody's going to argue about the jobs it will bring. People get excited about an industry bringing 30 new jobs to the area, let alone 300," Kiteley said. "With so many people out of work these days, the traffic around Wal-Mart should be the least of our worries. We need the jobs."

Wal-Mart operates nearly 8,500 markets and retail clubs worldwide, under 53 different labels in 15 countries. According to their Web page, more people work for Wal-Mart than any other employer in the world.

As of last month, the retailer that wants shoppers to "save money, live better" employed approximately 1.4 million associates at more than 4,100 stores in the United States.

According to Wal-Mart, that makes them the nation's largest private employer, as well.

According to the N.C. Employment Security Commission, nearly 52,000 employees worked for the marketplace giant last year, making Wal-Mart the state's largest employer.

Justin Stewart can be reached at jastewart@unca.edu.