Super Wal-Mart and growth

Thursday, March 21, 2002

A discussion on annexation of the former Sale Barn site into Storm Lake has emerged into something of a debate over the city's development strategy.

While that could make the process a bit sticky, perhaps it's time for a look at the bigger picture anyway.

A store the size of some small third-world countries is going to change the city, to be sure. It will bring in tax base revenue, change the retail drawing power, affect the other shopping districts of the city for better or for worse, and cause some shifts in everything from traffic patterns to city infrastructure needs.

The fact that Wal-Mart has been looking to build a mega-store in the city has been the worst-kept secret since Bill Clinton's late-night pizza parties in the Oval Office.

So it comes as little surprise when Mayor Jon Kruse revealed during a council meeting this week that city staff has been working with the retail giant behind the scenes for months on a plan for the development, right down to a "handshake agreement" with Wal-Mart to pay for stoplights, a water lift station, sewer and water line extensions.

Development dealings are often done behind closed doors; it's a competitive, fierce and sensitive field - sort of a beauty pageant without the swimsuit competition.

Kruse said no special incentives are being offered to land the sprawling store, and there should not be. Nothing was handed to the small businessperson downtown who has worked so hard to build this town, and asked for no favors.

We would hope for something more solid than a handshake to go on soon, as it only seems appropriate for the giant corporation to pay for the infrastructure that would be made necessary by its decision to locate in Storm Lake. I doubt the cost of a sidewalk or a water pipe will drive the Walton empire into bankruptcy.

The discussion isn't a referendum on the pros and cons of Wal-Mart. The company has a right to develop where it thinks it can turn a profit. There's no stopping growth.

The issue is packaging it in a way that it will provide maximum benefit to the community.

The era of a development-at-all-costs philosophy is past. Smokestacks and bigger stores should be judged on what they can do for a community, as well as what costs and risks they may represent.

No one in the city council chambers is saying that annexing the sale barn site into the city limits is a bad idea. That corner is ripe for a major commercial development of some kind, and will be of value to the city's growth hopes.

No one is really questioning a change in zoning from ag to commercial either. Farming isn't in the cards for the North Lake Avenue area at this stage.

So what's the rub?

Doing the right things for the right reason, perhaps. Or just the sneaking suspicion that we had best take a moment to step back and see what we are doing with Storm Lake's future beyond the bright lights of the tempting Super Wal-Mart marquee.

The mayor and some council members are pleased to move forward with the development, and don't want to see the issue sidetracked at this early stage by smaller issues such as sidewalk to the huge store. "This is an opportunity in the city for growth," council member Julie Egland said.

The discussion this week touched on sidewalks - is it safer with or without walks for people to go to a Super Wal-Mart on foot, and if walks are needed, who should pay for them?

Of course, sidewalks aren't the big-picture issue, either.

Council member Jim Treat makes a pretty strong point, in my opinion, although the council majority vote didn't side with him.

Treat said there needs to be a "logic pertaining to growth."

He would like the city to take time to explore how such a development might change the North Lake Avenue area, and especially what it may do to traffic patterns in the city.

Logic hasn't always played out, of course. When the Highway 71 bypass was built, the experts said that Storm Lake growth would go with it, and envisioned "pods" of new retail and service outlets clustered all around the bypass. The only development to date has been the community's own lighthouse.

A Super Wal-Mart will be a player in determining future directions of growth. With a hotel and restaurants in place, development to the north will again be likely.

Now is a good time for the community to think about what it wants for its future.

What kind of developments would improve our image and benefit our economics? Are there some kinds of growth we don't want? What can our infrastructure support? Do we want to mold potential growth in certain directions to control sprawl, parking issues, traffic safety, environmental concerns and so on?

Storm Lake is neither anti-growth or development-at-all-costs. It's a good, balanced place to be.

And, as Mr. Treat says, it's always a good time to talk logic.