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Wal-Mart launches its second wave As the retail giant develops more supercenters, new questions are raised on long-term consequences

Call it Wal-Mart: the second wave.

The question is no longer what effect Wal-Mart will have when it gets here, as it was during the retail giant's expansion into Western New York in the mid-1990s; it's what happens when the company decides to rebuild and expand.

So while there are plans for as many as four new sites in the area, Wal-Mart's building plans now call for just as many bigger, newer stores to replace its old stores -- and that creates a new set of issues:

* When will the company reach its saturation point here?

* What will happen to its old buildings?

* Will competition between Wal-Mart's own stores leave some of them closed?

* How will it affect the surrounding communities and their businesses?

Wal-Mart is trying to finish projects -- many of them replacement or new stores -- in Hamburg, Amherst, Lockport, Evans/Angola, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda and Batavia.

The area isn't near saturation yet for Wal-Mart, according to Philip Serghini, Wal-Mart's senior manager for public affairs.

"From a Wal-Mart perspective, it's not dense at all," Serghini said of the store placement. "Every time Wal-Mart brings a store from conception to opening the doors, our real estate program has to go through a very rigorous review that goes to highest levels of the company. Each has to stand on its own as far as being successful and profitable.

"All of those stores have met that standard."

The business strategy has made Wal-Mart the world's biggest business and its biggest employer.

But not everyone agrees it's good for the communities themselves.

"It is part of the business plan of big-box stores that they keep adding new facilities until their stores are so close together they choke the competition," said Dolores Bennett, a member of North Tonawanda First. Her group opposes the store proposed for the former Melody Fair site.

The retiree feels people still don't realize how big an impact a Wal-Mart can have on an area -- and that with Wal-Marts already located a few miles away in Lockport and Amherst, there isn't a real need for another one.

Opposition groups pop up almost everywhere a Wal-Mart is proposed. In Hamburg, Wal-Mart plans to raze the former South Shore Plaza and build a supercenter to replace its current store 3 miles up Route 20.

Attorney David Seeger has represented several of the opposition groups, including that one.

"As Wal-Mart's being developed, it's going to close an existing Wal-Mart store that's going to sit there like a white elephant for years," said Seeger.

While residents groups may be worried about the Wal-Mart effect, most officials aren't. Hamburg Supervisor Steven Walters said he doesn't expect Wal-Mart's store at the town's "Seven Corners" intersection to stay vacant for long.

"It's always a concern when a building becomes vacant; however, the location of this particular building makes us optimistic it will be filled somewhat shortly after Wal-Mart leaves it," said Walters.

The Springville Wal-Mart was the chain's only area supercenter -- selling food as well as other merchandise -- for close to a decade after its 1995 opening.

Now Wal-Mart is building supercenters almost exclusively, playing off the idea that people will get groceries and then do the rest of their shopping, and vice versa. In places where there have been standard Wal-Mart discount stores, the chain is building new supercenters or retrofitting -- as in Batavia.

Serghini says that means there are almost always a couple of vacant former Wal-Marts in New York State. And with most standard Wal-Marts in the 100,000-square-foot range -- as opposed to 200,000 for supercenters -- that means there is a limited list of potential buyers.

Serghini said the company "believes in competition and doesn't block it." So, he said, in many cases the Wal-Mart has sold its vacant stores to competitors -- even Target, the company that has come closest to rivaling Wal-Mart in recent years.

According to Al Norman, a well-known Wal-Mart opponent and source of information for Wal-Mart opponents, the company has replaced hundreds of stores with supercenters in recent years, frequently building across the street from their original locations.

"As many as one-third of these stores are on the market for three years or longer," he said.

As far as saturation goes, Serghini said Wal-Mart has never had to close a supercenter.

The larger stores are a newer phenomenon, though. Wal-Mart is 44 years old as a corporate entity but didn't start building supercenters until the early 1990s. It has built more than 2,000 since, becoming the largest grocery chain in the nation.

Consequently, grocery chains like Wegmans and Tops have faced stiffer competition when supercenters have arrived. Tops has recently scaled back efforts to update and expand its area stores as the supercenters have been arriving, and its corporate owners have put the chain up for sale.

In Western New York, Wal-Mart has gained the support of local officials for most of its recent projects, particularly those that involve reusing older retail sites, such as those in Hamburg, Amherst and Lockport.

Officials in places like North Tonawanda and Evans/Angola that have no large retailers have also welcomed the chance to keep business -- including sales and property taxes -- in their municipalities.

"I'm all for it. I think it's great for the city," said North Tonawanda Mayor Lawrence Soos. "Unlike other businesses, they're not asking for any kind of property tax relief, which I was amazed to see. The majority of people are leaving to go out and shop, anyway, to Target and other places. This keeps disposable income in the city."

In Evans and Angola, the town and village are offering free workshops for small businesses on how to cope with a big-box store coming to town.

Lancaster Supervisor Robert H. Giza said Wal-Mart has all the approvals it needs now for its property at Transit Road and Williams Street.

The supervisor is inclined to let the marketplace have its say.

"Let the people vote with their feet," he said. "If they don't want a Wal-Mart there, don't go in there and shop."

Margaret Magno has been fighting the Lockport project for 2 1/2 years now on the grounds that the project would require more than 40 zoning variances and would be too close to residential neighborhoods. She would disagree with Giza.

"Truthfully, I don't care whoever goes into that space," Magno said. "The Town of Lockport just needs to obey the zoning.

"But they like to get people in there, they have everything from tires to food. It's working, but these dark stores are all over the country. That's one of the reasons they're being fought all over the country. They just bring blight."

Whether the Wal-Mart effect is positive or negative may be a matter of perspective. What's certain is that Wal-Mart is indeed bringing it.


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