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Archive for Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Changing the rules

May 14, 2003

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City officials may not be playing by the rules in dealing with a proposed development by Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart may not be the most beloved retailer in the United States, but it is a highly successful company that offers merchandise at reasonable prices. Wal-Mart is a tough competitor, but it plays by the rules and, as might be expected, its officials expect those with whom they deal to play by the rules.

This is why the actions and statements by some Lawrence city officials puzzle the giant retailer.

Wal-Mart officials received city approval in October 2001 to build a retail facility at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive. They later sought approval for a larger store, a 200,000-square-foot building that would have placed all the development at the site under one roof, rather than a 132,000-square-foot building and a smaller structure at the southeast corner of the lot.

The second request was denied, with opponents using all kinds of excuses for opposing the development. These opponents talked about traffic congestion, proximity to Free State High School and other issues.

They didn't have the courage to say they just didn't like Wal-Mart and don't want a Wal-Mart store in their neighborhood. Chances are they would have remained quiet if it had been another large retailer.

Now there is concern among Wal-Mart officials that some in Lawrence city government may be trying to find an excuse to deny the company's application for a building permit. Wal-Mart wants to proceed with plans to build the 132,000-square-foot store the city already had approved, but it's suspected that efforts may be underway behind the scenes to find some other excuse to keep the Arkansas-based company from building anything at Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

Some city commissioners appear to be playing games with the "use group" listing, which is used to approve certain types of stores for specific locations in Lawrence. Wal-Mart played by the city's zoning and development plans in 2001, and now some City Hall people suggest they want to review these rules.

This is wrong, and offers one more example why Lawrence is looked upon as an extremely difficult place in which to build or start a new business. Builders and developers who do business throughout the state and nation consistently say Lawrence presents an attractive market but that it is one of the most difficult -- if not THE most difficult -- cities in which to get a project done.

This applies to projects such as Wal-Mart as well as traffic patterns that are approved by city officials at major intersections then changed after private interests have invested in neighboring commercial property.

As noted above, Wal-Mart may not be the best-liked company in the country, but it is just as wrong for city officials to discriminate against the retailer as it is for them to engage in other forms of discrimination.

Put aside all the reasons and arguments many in western Lawrence have for opposing the Wal-Mart development; the real reason is they just don't want a Wal-Mart store in their neighborhood.

The city has already given Wal-Mart the green light to build a 132,000-square-foot store. It will be interesting to see how city officials try to backtrack and change the rules of the city's development game.

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