Store wins final OK

After 5 1/2 years, City Commission quietly approves plan

It was an unceremonious end Tuesday evening to a bitter, five-and-a-half year battle with the world’s largest retailer.

With neither fanfare nor protest, city commissioners gave the final necessary approval for Wal-Mart to build a new store in the city – its second in Lawrence – at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Wakarusa Drive.

Wal-Mart officials said they plan to have a building permit for the project this spring, and expect the store will be completed 10 to 12 months after starting construction. That means an early 2009 opening is most likely.

“This is a project we have been committed to for a long time, and we’re looking forward to breaking ground,” said Angie Stoner, a spokeswoman with Wal-Mart.

In August of 2002, Wal-Mart officials announced plans for a 200,000-square-foot Supercenter store on the west side of the city.

And then the fighting began.

Neighbors immediately expressed concerns that the store would create too much traffic for the area. Developers countered that the Sixth and Wakarusa intersection was one of the better-designed in the city.

The previous City Commission ultimately sided with the neighbors and denied the project, which sparked a lawsuit from the development group and Wal-Mart claiming that the city denied the project for political reasons.

Last April’s elections – which came just days before the trial was scheduled to start – changed the majority on the City Commission, and talks to settle the lawsuit immediately began. In August, the two sides came together and agreed on a much smaller store – an approximately 100,000-square-foot version.

On Tuesday evening, none of the opponents of the project showed up to speak against the project. Commissioners didn’t spend much time talking about it, either. Instead, they simply agreed to accept the rights-of-ways and easements for the project, clearing the way for the project to apply for a building permit.

City leaders said they recognized the project still wasn’t universally loved in the community, but thought it was important for the community to move on from the controversy.

“It will be nice to get this behind us and move forward,” Mayor Sue Hack said. “We have to do more of that.”

The development group behind the project – which is led by local businessmen Doug Compton and Bill Newsome – said they were pleased that the long approval process came to a quiet end.

“I told someone we pulled up to City Hall for a Wal-Mart hearing and there actually were parking spots available,” Newsome said. “That was unusual.”

The new store, although significantly smaller than what originally was proposed, will be a Supercenter that sells both grocery and general merchandise products, Stoner said.

Newsome said the project will be a benefit to the community.

“I think this is a good day for the city,” Newsome said. “It will bring convenience, and in this age of expensive fuel prices, I think that’s important.”

Commissioners approved the final plat Tuesday evening on a 4-1 vote. Commissioner Boog Highberger – who consistently has opposed the project – was the lone vote against it.