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Will Wal-Mart alter Alden? Rural town confronts plans for giant plaza

The quiet farming Town of Alden, population 10,470, is the site of a proposed retail plaza that could be the biggest of its kind in Western New York.

If fully built, the 95-acre project, which the developer says would be anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter, would approach the size of Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga and dwarf even some of the region's busiest big-box retail centers.

Which begs the question:

Why Alden?

"I mean, who's going to shop there?" asked Coleen Czechowski, a lifelong resident of Alden who is both baffled and alarmed by the project, planned for what is now farmland. "Alden is a small place."

It may be small, but it is located a short drive from thousands of potential shoppers who don't have access to a Wal-Mart: people in nearby Genesee and Wyoming counties and people in the growing communities of Alden and Marilla.

It even might attract people who live close to a Wal-Mart but have tired of the crowds at their local store.

"It would be a lot easier to get in and out," Alden Supervisor Ronald Smith said -- especially for those who now shop at one of the suburban Wal-Marts along Transit Road in Lancaster and Clarence. That's a road "people avoid at all costs," he said.

Wal-Mart hasn't committed to the project, at 12270 Broadway, between Sandridge and Four Rod roads. But a spokesman said the company estimates Alden residents alone spend more than $500,000 a year at area Wal-Marts.

"It's significant," said Philip Serghini, head of public affairs for Wal-Mart's New York operations. "Wal-Mart is interested in better serving this market."

Like most communities targeted by Wal-Mart, Alden is polarized. On one side are those who would like a closer place to shop, and on the other are those who fear it will overwhelm the community with congestion and crime, destroying its small-town flavor.

Alden is about 20 miles east of downtown Buffalo. Its only shopping center, an Ames Plaza, shut down about seven years ago when the chain went belly up. That forced residents of Alden and a whole cluster of small rural towns that had frequented the Alden Ames to shop 10 miles away in such places as Amherst and Cheektowaga.

The proposed Alden mall would look very much like the shopping centers in those suburbs -- except much bigger.

This Wal-Mart would be about 155,000 square feet and situated toward the back of the site, with smaller buildings -- like coffee shops, retail outlets or maybe office buildings -- in front, just off Broadway, the main thoroughfare.

That accounts for about 60 acres of the project. Eastgate Plaza on Transit Road in Clarence looks much the same, with a Wal-Mart Supercenter and other big-box stores lined behind restaurants and other small stores.

The difference is that Eastgate Plaza is 28 acres. Cheektowaga's Walden Galleria is about 90 acres.

About a third of the land for the Alden project, including the portion for the Wal-Mart, needs to be rezoned from agricultural-residential to commercial, a request now before the Planning Board.

Another 30 acres or so of the parcel appears to be wetlands. Developer Frank Russo originally planned to build more big-box stores on that land as well but has since backed off, Smith said.

Smith, though, figures if the 30-acre rezoning is approved and the plaza built, Russo will try to build there anyway.

Final action isn't expected anytime soon. A full environmental review has just started. Smith said he doubts the Planning Board will make recommendations before the end of the year. Pending any lawsuits -- always a possibility when Wal-Mart is involved -- the Town Board makes the final decision.

Russo would not comment when contacted by The News. His attorney, Richard Sherwood, did not return repeated telephone calls.

A well-organized opposition group sprang up quickly after news of the project surfaced more than a year ago.

Alden Residents for Responsible Growth has packed public meetings and hammered officials with questions so often heard in the Wal-Mart wars:

*Will the Wal-Mart, and the plaza in general, bring too much traffic and pollution? Will it cause crime in a community that now has almost none? About 50 acres of the site consists of active or viable farmland, so the county Agricultural Farmland Protection Board opposes the project.

*Will it contaminate the local drinking water? The village's aquifer is behind land pegged for the development, they note.

Ralph Witt, chairman of the town Planning Board, said the project will bring jobs and finally give residents someplace close to shop. He isn't worried about traffic. Broadway can be easily enlarged if need be, although it doesn't get that much use to begin with, he says.

"They exaggerate," Witt said of the opponents. "The positives are huge, and the negatives are less so."

Smith said the plaza would damage the village's traditional business district.

It wouldn't help the tax base much, at least not initially. Smith said tax breaks would likely be granted. Tax savings for a typical homeowner? About $35 a year, Smith said.

Property owners close to the proposed plaza already have been approached by developers, who anticipate the plaza would draw enough business to open more stores, Smith said.

In hopes of killing the project, the Alden Residents for Responsible Growth has focused on finding an investor willing to bring the old Ames Plaza back to life.

That plaza and the one containing a Tops Market, each with about 10 acres, should provide enough retail space, they say.

After all, that was enough retailing for years and years, said Paul Pawlak, one of the founding members of the opposition group.

For all the debate, something as big as Russo's project in a community so small appears certain to cause change.

Maybe it was inevitable, Smith said, particularly with suburbanites slowly starting to move in. Newcomers seek out Alden for the peace and quiet of the country life.

"But people seem to want everything," Smith said. And that includes some place close to buy a pair of socks, as supporters of the project often say.

Critics say Alden does not need such a large plaza just to keep stocked up on socks.

Czechowski, who helped found the Responsible Growth organization, is sick of hearing it. "You want socks? I'll buy you some socks. I'll deliver them to you," she said. "We don't need this [project]. It's just too large. It will kill this town."

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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