The Herald - Everett, Wash. - www.HeraldNet.com

Published: Friday, December 7, 2007

Wal-Mart Retreats From Snohomish County

Mill Creek store scuttled; Arlington, Marysville plans delayed

By Eric Fetters
Herald Writer

Wal-Mart has scrapped plans for a supercenter at a hard-fought location in Mill Creek and is delaying new stores in Arlington and Marysville.

The world's largest retailer doesn't often give up on proposed stores, but the prolonged process to gain final approval for the Mill Creek site took its toll, company officials said.

"When we signed the ground lease with the property owner, we didn't expect to do an environmental impact study. We didn't expect to have this long, protracted process, because we haven't gone through that elsewhere in the county," said Jennifer Spall, Wal-Mart's spokeswoman for Washington. "All of those processes added time to that project."

The Arlington and Marysville stores are being delayed as part of a corporate decision to re-evaluate its national expansion plans, Spall said, adding Snohomish County's fast-growing population still makes it an attractive place to expand.

The chain actually released its lease on the Mill Creek site in September, she said.

Opponents of that project cheered Wal-Mart's decision.

"That is awesome," said Lillian Kaufer of Citizens for a Better Mill Creek, which led the fight against the proposed store on 132nd Street SE. "This group has worked so hard, it's unreal."

Kaufer estimated the group, which received help from the United Food and Commercial Workers union, spent at least $60,000 to $70,000 on legal fees in fighting the proposed store. Most of that came in donations or from fundraising events the group held, she said.

After gaining initial approval from Snohomish County planning authorities to build in Mill Creek, the company was ordered by a hearing examiner a year ago to study the potential environmental and traffic effects created by the store. Such a study wasn't required for the project's initial environmental approval.

"It would have had a significant impact there, the traffic impact alone," said Claudia Newman, a Seattle attorney for Citizens for a Better Mill Creek. She added she hopes Snohomish County officials look more closely at the impacts of proposed big-box store projects such as this one before granting their approval in the future.

Despite some admitted fatigue over the fight and doubts about the neighborhood group's chances in taking on Wal-Mart, Kaufer said opponents weren't about to give up.

"We were going to drag this out as long as possible," she said.

Tim Burns, Mill Creek's city manager, said he hadn't received official word as of late Thursday afternoon, but he'd previously heard unconfirmed reports that Wal-Mart wouldn't be building along 132nd Street SE.

The city has considered plans for a mixed-use urban village development on adjoining land that would complement the retail shop. Whatever goes in Wal-Mart's place could be similarly designed to mesh with a future urban village, Burns said.

"I'm sure that's a possibility, but it would be up to the developer and property owners there," he said.

Spall said Wal-Mart still would like to build a new store near Mill Creek, as its store near the intersection of I-5 and 164th Street SW is frequently packed.

"That store is busy constantly. It's overshopped," Spall said. "The demand's there, so we'll continue to look, just not at that site."

At the same time, Wal-Mart's timetable for two new supercenters further north also has slowed.

Construction on the Arlington supercenter along 172nd Street NE now is scheduled to begin in 2009, with a projected opening in February 2010, Spall said. That project, already approved by the city of Arlington, had been scheduled to start this fall.

Additionally, work on a new Marysville supercenter at the northwest corner of Highway 9 and 64th Street NE also has been delayed until next year. That store also won approval from the city of Marysville, surviving some neighborhood opposition. City officials were expecting work to start this spring.

It was less than three years ago that Wal-Mart seemed on the verge of saturating Snohomish County with at least four new stores between Arlington and Mill Creek. Rumors flew about additional locations in the area. Since then, the retailer has opened one new store locally, on Highway 99 in south Everett. With that, Wal-Mart has three stores in the county, including a supercenter at Quil Ceda Village on the Tulalip Reservation.

Over the past year, Wal-Mart's top executives have said they would slow the retailer's expansion.

That companywide review of new store plans was the main factor behind the delays for the Arlington and Marysville openings, Spall said.

"We want to make sure we're opening there at the right time for the growth," she said.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com.
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