Business owners fear effects of 13th Street Walmart closing


Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 9:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 9:30 p.m.

Betsy Whitaker has been working for 20 years to find business tenants for the old Gainesville Mall area on Northwest 13th Street. The exodus began in the 1980s after The Oaks Mall opened across town.

She and other business people in the area fear another exodus of businesses leaving the area if Walmart closes its location on 13th Street, taking its 35,000 daily trips with it. The presumption has been that if a new Walmart Supercenter is built near the intersection of U.S. 441 and NW 34th Street, the 13th Street Walmart will close soon thereafter.

As Realtor for several properties in the area, Whitaker helped bring Lowe's Home Improvement to the site of the old Gainesville Mall.

Verizon recently signed a lease to move into the closed Fazoli's Italian restaurant.

Those deals and others were dependent on Walmart being nearby, she said.

A national retailer just canceled a lease on the vacant Shell Oil gas station property at Northwest 13th Street and 23rd Avenue after the Gainesville Development Review Board approved Walmart's plan, she said. Another national retailer in talks to fill the 60,000-square-foot store that has been vacant in Verde Plaza for nearly 10 years -- initially a J.M. Fields and later a Pic ‘N Save store -- is dependent on Walmart staying.

“Do you know what a black hole is?” Whitaker asked, when describing what she thinks could happen in the area if Walmart closes. “A lot of leases we have been able to secure have been because Walmart was there. All these people are very concerned their business is just going to go downhill.”

The convenience of a 24/7 Wal-Mart and restaurants in the 13th Street corridor is a big selling point when taking reservations, said Knights Inn motel manager Ashish BrahmbhattCQ -Anthony Clark 4/1/10 6:42 PM. He said he is also concerned that less traffic would mean more crime.

Business people say the other tenants in the Walmart Plaza, including Books-A-Million and Save-A-Lot grocery store, would likely leave when their leases are up within a couple years.

Kite Realty Group Trust of Indianapolis, Ind., is the property owner. Mark Jenkins, senior vice president, said lease terms are confidential, but added that if Walmart left, that would damage the viability of the other businesses.

“Those tenants are going to look to get out of that center as soon as they possibly can,” he said.

Walmart is still under lease there, likely in the three-year range, he said.

“We expect them to live up to their lease,” Jenkins said.

If Walmart does leave, developers will be working to find a new tenant as soon as possible, Jenkins said. Given the current economic climate, Jenkins concedes that will be difficult, adding that the city permitting process also has to be factored into the time frame.

The Walmart building would most likely be demolished and a new facility built for a new tenant, he said.

The building could also be subdivided to accommodate smaller stores, or filled with “second-generation users,” retailers such as Kohl's or Academy Sports, which have been known to move into empty Walmarts, he said.

Bob Ackerman, shareholder of the nearby Brasington Outfitters store, said the move goes against 20 years of city planning by creating sprawl and hurting an existing central business area.

As a member of the city's planning board, he is familiar with the issues.

He said it costs city taxpayers to extend utilities and other infrastructure while under-using those that are already paid for.

John Hudson said he appealed the Development Review Board's decision to the City Commission out of similar concerns for the Northwest 13th Street corridor and the city of Gainesville.

Hudson is a development consultant to the owner of Verde Plaza but said he has no financial stake in what happens in that area and, though encouraged afterward by business owners there, acted on his own in filing the appeal.

“I'm in this for the economic benefit of Gainesville,” he said.

Hudson has standing in the case because he owns a home that he rents across Northwest 34th Street from the proposed Supercenter.

He said he does have a financial stake in that regard, if the noise from the store and the added traffic to an already congested street make it more difficult to rent the home.

The arguments for keeping Walmart open on 13th Street are the same arguments used by proponents of a new Supercenter -- that it will revitalize the mostly empty Northwood Village Shopping Center, which has struggled since a Winn-Dixie closed and that it will turn around what has become known as a crime area in the Pine Ridge residential neighborhood.

Beau Beery of AMJ Inc. has been trying to develop the nearby Shoppes at Pinewood but -- like Northwest 13th Street -- said a lot of deals are dependent on Walmart coming first.

The hope is that business growth brings jobs, which allows people to pay more rent, which allows landlords to fix up their properties, he said.

“That's how the revitalization of areas works. It starts with a catalyst like Walmart.”

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