If not Wal-Mart, what?

Wal-Mart panel pulls plug on downtown Columbia store

Developer looking for another anchor tenant for Assembly Street site

cleblanc@thestate.comtflach@thestate.comDecember 15, 2012 

— After a year of public angst and enthusiasm, Columbia will not have a Walmart store at Capital City Stadium.

The Atlanta-based company that is seeking to develop a retail center around the city-owned baseball park has informed Columbia leaders that the retailing giant is no longer interested in being an anchor tenant.

Matt Sasser, an executive with Bright-Meyers, said Friday that Wal-Mart’s committee that approves new stores rejected the stadium site.

“They did take it to committee and it did get turned down,” Sasser said. “I have been telling y’all for over a year that they had never even committed to the development.”

He said he is seeking several other anchor tenants, but declined to identify any.

Columbia’s business development director, Fred Delk, said Bright-Meyers sought more than one anchor all along.

City manager Steve Gantt said Sasser told him of Wal-Mart’s decision about three weeks ago. Gantt said Bright-Meyers has until mid-January to pull out of its $1 million sales contract with the city without incurring any financial costs. In that case, the city would retain the stadium site.

Gantt said Sasser has told him he is seeking other tenants, though Gantt, too, would not disclose any details.

Critics remain skeptical of developing the site despite Wal-Mart’s decision.

“Regardless of who the anchor tenant is, it still poses the same problems,” said Bob Guild, a environmental lawyer who lives in Olympia. “Our concerns remain.”

A year ago, news that a downsized, urban Walmart was slated to open along south Assembly Street near USC triggered strong reaction from some neighbors and environmentalists.

Project foes said a shopping center might worsen flooding problems around the site, further pollute Rocky Branch and the downstream Congaree River and increase noise and traffic troubles.

As public opposition grew, the initial unanimous support on City Council fractured. But ultimately, council voted to approve the contract to sell the 5.6-acre stadium property to Bright-Meyers. The sale was initiated in October 2011.

Sustainable Midlands, one of the project’s most vocal critics, hopes Walmart’s withdrawal opens the way for rethinking the design of anything built on the site.

“We continue to stress to city officials that this is an opportunity for a corridor that would be the city’s southern gateway,” said Ryan Nevius, executive director of the group. “Now it’s a design nightmare fraught with the risk of flood.”

Most city leaders want the retail center to go forward.

“Our understanding is that the developer has a number of options,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said in a statement. “We look forward to a project that brings new economic activity to a community that badly needs it and leverage that activity to fund watershed improvements to help reduce flooding and improve water quality.”

Other city leaders agree.

“If Walmart doesn’t come, I’m hoping someone else will,” councilman Moe Baddourah said.

“The developer is still trying,” councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said. “The issue is about having a viable development.”

Some property owners and residents support the project.

Backers say the new retail facility would boost the long-neglected stretch of Assembly Street that borders some of Columbia’s former textile mill neighborhoods and stretches toward USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium. They said the shopping center would be a natural fit for the thousands of students living nearby.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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