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Big question: How many Supercenters can the Coast support?

Consumers love ‘em, small merchants loathe ‘em?

PASS CHRISTIAN — Shoppers love them. Small retail merchants loathe them. “Them” are the Wal-Mart Supercenters coming to town.

An interesting question is: How many Supercenters can the Coast support?

The retail giant has recently built new Supercenters in Ocean Springs and D’Iberville, and already has a Supercenter and a Sam’s in Gulfport, along with regular stores in Waveland, Pascagoula and Biloxi.

Now Wal-Mart is also planning a Supercenter in Waveland to replace the regular Wal-Mart there, and another Supercenter is being considered for Pass Christian.

Carleen Moran, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber got “nine million” phone calls after the news of the Supercenter in Pass Christian made the news.

“Many callers were concerned that Hancock County wouldn’t get its Wal-Mart Supercenter,” Moran said. “But Wal-Mart says the store in Pass Christian won’t have anything to do with the Supercenter planned in Waveland near the intersection of Highway 603 and Highway 90.”

Moran said Wal-Mart officials have confirmed looking for a Supercenter site somewhere between Long Beach and the Hancock County line. Sites are being considered, but a decision has not yet been made. The Wal-Mart planned in or near Pass Christian will be a Supercenter, but not as large as the one planned for Waveland.

Small merchants concerned

Small merchants have concerns about the Supercenter putting them out of business. Moran said that local grocery stores, especially those located close to the site of the Supercenter in Waveland, have the most to lose. But, as was seen by the deluge of calls that came into the chamber office after the other Supercenter plans made the news, consumers want a Wal-Mart Supercenter nearby.

“A lot of people now are driving to Sam’s at Highway 49 and I-10,” Moran said. “The traffic congestion is so bad there that a lot of people avoid it. People want to go to the most convenient place. Sometimes I’ll go to the closest grocery even though I know it is more expensive because I know I can get in and out quickly. Years ago it took five minutes to get from Bay St. Louis to Waveland. Now with the traffic and stoplights, it takes 15 minutes.”

Construction of the Supercenter in Waveland has been delayed because of environmental permitting. Originally a 31-acre wetland fill was planned for the expansion on the site of the present Wal-Mart Store.

“We met with them and decided they needed to come up with something of less impact,” said Jan Shelby, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “They came up with a proposal to fill 19 acres. They are going to be putting a conservation easement on 28 acres, and will buy additional credits at a mitigation bank. So right now we are waiting for DEQ’s (Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality) water quality certification and DMR (Department of Marine Resources) coastal zone consistency before approving the project.”

Wal-Mart is looking at sites located on the beach along U.S. 90 in and near Pass Christian. Those previously developed sites may not have wetlands issues, and so the project could be built before the Waveland Supercenter.

Merchants in Pass Christian have expressed concerns that they would be more affected than their counterparts in larger towns that have more shoppers to draw from. The town has about 30 local merchants, and a population of 6,000.

Historic town

“Pass Christian is an historical town on the National Historic Register,” said Wilma Rizzardi, administrative manager for the Pass Christian chamber. “The merchants are all against it. That is the main reason we want to keep it out because we want to keep the smaller businesses and merchants. I know a Super Wal-Mart would close down most of our local merchants because they cannot compete. We don’t want to be like every other town that has a Super Wal-Mart.”

The Pass Christian Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken an official position on the issue yet. Rizzardi says many local residents do favor the Wal-Mart Supercenter so they don’t have to drive to Gulfport or Waveland.

“There are pros and cons,” Rizzardi said. “There are those who are in favor of it because of the convenience and good prices. But there are concerns that it will make Highway 90 a driving nightmare because they will end up having to widen the roads. It will just bring a lot more problems with Highway 90.”

The biggest fear is that the downtown merchants, most housed in historic buildings, would not be able to compete.

“The downtown could become a ghost town with many empty shops,” Rizzardi said. “With this being a smaller town, it would have a bigger impact on local merchants. We don’t have the strength of a larger city to support the local merchants as well as Wal-Mart. We just don’t want to become a ghost town. Most of our businesses are in the older buildings. It they become vacant, I don’t know what would happen.”

Alice Russell, Russell’s Service Center and Shell Station, Pass Christian, said the new Wal-Mart wouldn’t hurt their business. But she has concern it would affect merchants, especially “mom and pop” grocery stories, a family-owned garden store and the local drug store.

“For the consumers, I think it is probably good,” Russell said. “They like it. It is one stop. They can cover everything. But to me you lose something when you don’t have the small shops you can go to and get personalized service. One of the things that bothers me is as a rule when you see these larger chains come in, your city government has a tendency to give them tax breaks as an incentive to come. I don’t know at what point your break even and how long it takes to recoup the costs.”

Russell feels a Wal-Mart would open the door to entirely change Pass Christian, particularly if it locates in the quiet beach area that is currently rumored as the preferred site.

She adds that local residents worked hard to get a supermarket to locate in the town, a Winn Dixie. Several other businesses are located next to the Winn Dixie in a shopping center. Russell fears that whole shopping center could become vacant if a Wal-Mart Supercenter moves in.

“I think it would basically shut the shopping center down,” Russell said. “And the area where they want to put it is not a heavily populated area. So they will have to draw from other areas. Pass Christian is too small to support a Super Wal-Mart by itself. It has to come from other areas like Long Beach.”

Billy McDonald, mayor of Pass Christian, said he has had calls both pro and con about the Wal-Mart, but hasn’t been able to get any confirmation from Wal-Mart headquarters that a Wal-Mart is even planned in Pass Christian.

“We called the corporate headquarters a couple of months ago, and they said they knew of no plans for a Wal-Mart here,” McDonald said. Later someone representing Wal-Mart scheduled a meeting with the mayor, but the meeting was cancelled. Often possible Wal-Mart locations are a guarded secret because of land speculation that can occur near a new Wal-Mart. Usually other strip malls are built nearby to take advantage of the large customer base attracted to the Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart’s community affairs office did not return calls on this issue prior to deadline.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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