Sarasota awaits the next move by Walmart
Michael Pollick/Sarasota Herald-Tribune
The City Commission’s rejection of Walmart’s plans to develop a supercenter on Ringling Boulevard may end up being but a small episode in a prolonged effort that could involve litigation by the Arkansas-based merchant.
“They have three options now,” said city attorney Robert Fournier. “Walk away, try a different approach to see if they could work with the city on rezoning, or litigate.”
For Walmart, the aging Ringling Shopping Center offers a choice 10-acre tract and the ability to better blanket Southwest Florida. The supercenters closest to the Ringling site are on Lockwood Ridge Road in southern Manatee County and on Cattlemen Road.
While Walmart supercenters — totaling 200,000 square feet in many cases — stretch from Parrish to Osprey, the company’s coverage in the city of Sarasota has been lacking.
“This is exactly what they do,” said Dale Scott, a vice president of Deerfield Beach-based Sikon Construction, which has built some 20 Walmart stores.
“They draw these radiuses around their stores,” Scott said. “They see where there are gaps and they ask, ‘What are the demographics of that gap?'”
Analysts said that because the Ringling site may be strategically important to Walmart, the company might be more likely to take the issue to court, the next step in any appeal under Sarasota zoning rules.
“They don’t hesitate to litigate,” said Jeff Green, a retail analyst based in Phoenix.
Green believes a dearth of other sites may prompt the retailer to battle opponents further, even though Walmart’s contract to acquire the Ringling property remains contingent upon obtaining necessary approvals.
Local commercial real estate analysts concur.
“That is one of the few 10-acre sites in the city,” John Harshman, president of Harshman & Co. Inc., a commercial real estate brokerage firm.
For his part, Harshman believes Walmart would mesh with the city’s Downtown Master Plan 2020 and provide shopping for tens of thousands.
Green adds that the comparatively small size of the proposed supercenter — 98,000 square feet — speaks volumes.
“It really means to me that there are probably not a lot of other places they can go,” Green said. “It’s right where they want to go.”
“They tailored the prototype to that site,” he said. “If they had their druthers they would not have gone that small. So I think they were already making concessions to make the site work.”
Though Walmart became accustomed to pitched battles over store sites some 20 years ago, when residents of small towns often protested the retailer’s impact on everything from traffic to the environment to small business, such skirmishes are no longer the norm.
Whether a result of the Great Recession or more general acceptance, the scenario has changed: Typically, Walmart no longer must go to court to open its stores.
But the chain’s track record in Southwest Florida is mixed when it comes to fighting. In the case of Lockwood Ridge, Cattlemen Road, Venice and another store in Manatee County, it battled opponents — and won.
“Walmart has staying power,” said Scott, the Deerfield Beach developer. “They are used to going around the country, getting opposition they have to overcome, and they’re experts at it. If they really want a site, they will dig in, fight it out and get that site. They are as good as any company I have seen at that.”
There are exceptions here: In September 2007, Walmart quietly abandoned plans for a store on U.S. 301 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard after residents — and then-Commissioner Fredd Atkins — opposed the idea.
Walmart had contracted to acquire about a half-dozen businesses and a city brownfield site to build its store, but disagreements arose over staff wages and city remediation dollars.
The retailer’s plans in 2004 and 2006 met a similar fate at Fruitville Road near Interstate 75, where Walmart bought land to build a store near its existing Sam’s Club members’ outlet.
That deal met with opposition from residents and a neighboring shopping center over traffic access and other issues.
Despite offers of traffic and other improvements, Walmart ultimately chose to walked away and later sold the 30-acre site, which today remains pasture.
Residents get ready
Residents who live around the Ringling center say they are bracing for Walmart’s next move.
“They are going to come back with something,” said Candice Spaulding, president of the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association, the community that surrounds the Ringling site, which turned nearly empty in mid-2011 when Publix shuttered its store there.
“Either sue the city or come back with a new plan.”
Spaulding is not waiting.
“Now we are trying to get better organized so that we can have what is pleasing to everybody,” she said. “Whatever goes in there is going to be there for 50 or 60 years, and we want to be able to live with it.”
Kelly Kirschner, an Alta Vista association member and former Sarasota mayor swept into office opposing a planned condominium complex near the same shopping Center, agrees.
“Probably right now, the only way Walmart gets their supercenter is if they try to shove this down our throats and go through the courts to do it,” Kirschner said. “Walmart came in saying we have all these entitlements and can do whatever we want. But they are going to have to dramatically rethink the size, scale and design of the store.”
But some analysts expect Walmart will fashion a new hybrid design that might mollify residents and assuage city officials alike.
For now, both sides will simmer in anticipation of a draft resolution from Fournier, the city attorney, that will officially repeal approvals that Walmart had obtained. He will likely present his resolution to the commission on March 18.
“I would anticipate some discussion, confined to those reasons that they found persuasive,” Fournier said.