More Dogs on Main Street
July 18, 2008
Is there a Super Wal-Mart in our future, or are we going to be left with just a run-of-the-mill, ordinary Wal-Mart? That question will land in front of the county commissioners soon, now that the planning commission has granted approval to expand the Wal-Mart store at Kimball Junction. The expanded store would be 115,758 square feet, or 2.65 acres of floor space. That’s 61 Old Town lots, which sounds just gargantuan, but it’s also about the same size as Home Depot.
The reason for the expansion is that Wal-Mart has gone in the grocery business in a big way and wants to add a full-line grocery store to the Kimball Junction location. They are building about the same thing over in Heber. So far, Kamas Valley is Wal-Mart free.
The history of big-box retail in the area is complicated. In the early 1980s, when it was impossible to buy much of anything other than T-shirts and ski gear in town, we asked for it. One of the community goals that came from a series of neighborhood "visioning" meetings was expanded retail options. You could get tube socks at the Mt. Air Market or, later, Alpha-Beta. But if you wanted something more than that, it meant a trip to Salt Lake. So the county commission at the time tinkered with the zoning and recruited developers to take a chance on building big retail in a location that seemed, at the time, to be pretty risky.
By the time they had everything ready to roll, the political winds had changed and the public went nuts. Everybody wanted to be able to buy socks and shoes locally, but nobody had really focused on what that meant. We suddenly had Kmart in the meadow. Incumbent commissioners were run out of town in the next election. Then city council member Sally Elliott famously said, "We are not Kmart people." But it got built, and was quickly followed by Wal-Mart. Kmart, of course, went under. This location failed miserably, but the whole business ended up going down the tubes. In one of those mergers you couldn’t make up, it became part of Sears in a race to the bottom in terms of customer service.
While we aren’t Kmart people, apparently enough of us are Wal-Mart people that the business seems to be thriving. At least the store is always crowded (in large part because the aisles are always so crammed with stuff that you can’t push a cart through). I admit it I shop at Wal-Mart. I buy dog food and motor oil there, and sometimes stock up on some bulk items like paper goods. My dog is quite a snob and won’t eat the Wal-Mart dog food unless I peel the label off first. The old tractors don’t know Wal-Mart Pennzoil from oil purchased from an auto-parts store. So I save a few bucks and feel a little guilty about not having bought the same stuff at locally owned stores.
But it’s a dismal shopping experience. The only way it’s tolerable is to buy in enough quantity that I don’t have to make the trip more than every couple of months.
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I kind of worry about the fallout of another grocery store in the area, whether it’s connected to Wal-Mart or a free-standing store owned by a co-op of granola-eating locals who donate all the profits to community nonprofit organizations. I don’t think there is room for another grocery store in the local market. With the exception of the peak ski season, the grocery stores in town seem pretty vacant. I’ve never been in the Pinebrook Albertsons store, but I hear people say they love to shop there because they have the place to themselves. I don’t shop at Whole Foods because it’s so hard to find the pop-tarts, but it has its following. Wal-Mart carries more organic products now, so it would be competitor to even Whole Foods.
But where it really hits is at Albertsons, Smith’s and the locally owned Park City Market (which we all still call Dan’s) and probably even the Food Town in Kamas. The Wal-Mart in Heber will certainly hurt locally owned Day’s Market, which is a very nice grocery store. There is a limit to how many groceries we buy. Having ten grocery stores to choose from, instead of just one, doesn’t mean that we eat ten times as much. The same sales volume, spread over more stores, has to mean lower sales in each one. It doesn’t take much dilution of an already over-served market to wipe out the profit margin on a couple of stores.
So adding the grocery half of Wal-Mart probably means one or more of the existing stores either fails or becomes marginal. Instead of a few well-run stores offering top service, we end up with more stores clinging to life, cutting costs, and reducing service to offset the loss in volume. Maybe they can hang on until the population expands enough to make up for it. Maybe not. But it’s hard to imagine that adding 43,000 square feet or grocery store to Wal-Mart won’t result in one of the other grocery stores closing. And we all know how un-appealing the dead Kmart store was for all those years.
There’s a pretty legitimate question whether it is the role of local government to try to mitigate market conditions. We probably wouldn’t be having the discussion if the additional big-box retail space was a Target store that competed with Wal-Mart, or a Best Buy electronics store that represents a market category that isn’t already here (Best Buy is already planned for the Redstone area, by the way). If the existing Wal-Mart converted the building to a grocery store, without expanding, the impact on other grocers would be the same. So is the issue the size of the building or the product lines they sell? It’s probably a little of both.
I surely don’t have the answer. But with the traffic mess at Kimball Junction, I’d be in favor of tearing stuff down rather than building more.
Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for nearly 20 years.