THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Walmart: Project revives memories ‘Don’t Box the Neck’ campaign
By Charles Swenson
This time is different.
That’s one thing that the developer of a proposed big-box retail store at Pawleys Island and opponents of a 2005 big-box project agree on.
The 2005 rezoning request for a Lowe’s at the South Causeway generated a “Don’t Box the Neck” campaign that led to a narrow defeat for the home improvement company when the plan reached Georgetown County Council. “I don’t see the same level of energy that would be brought to bear on this,” said Glen O’Connell, one of the organizers of the Lowe’s opposition who was later elected to the council.
Sunbelt Ventures of Mount Pleasant has proposed a 119,500-square-foot store, identified by county officials as Walmart, as part of a redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza. Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt, said he was aware of the Lowe’s rezoning. “This is a brownfield redevelopment,” he said. “The other was new development.”
Wiederhold has been in the redevelopment business for 35 years, and he acknowledged that some tenants are harder to sell than others. Communities also vary. “Some communities will give you a blank check to get the jobs,” he said.
Unlike Lowe’s, Wiederhold has already met with County Council members, who will make the final decision on the project.
“I think I’m the only one who hasn’t seen the stuff,” Council Member Bob Anderson said. The project is in his district.
Anderson was part of Don’t Box the Neck, and Wiederhold came away from an earlier meeting with him with the idea that Anderson will oppose the Walmart. “He is anti-big-box,” Wiederhold said.
Yet Anderson said this week “I’m going to sit with them a take a look at what they’re doing.”
Council Member Jerry Oakley, who voted against Lowe’s, said the Walmart project has been talked about for “at least a year.”
“It’s a very different situation than we had with Lowe’s. I will be interested to see what the reaction of the citizens of Waccamaw Neck will be,” he said.
The plaza is already approved for 100,600 square feet of buildings. Sunbelt wants to add 7 acres and over 46,000 square feet of additional retail space, which requires county approval.
“If it makes sense, I’ll be fine with it,” Anderson said. But he noted that “if this one gets in, it will set a precedent.”
That’s a concern of Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis, who also opposed the Lowe’s.
“We don’t need to lose our local businesses and their jobs to the big boxes. We also don’t need to establish a precedent that will make it easier for other big box stores to locate in our community,” he said.
He said the effort to get the current project approved is more sophisticated, including the fact that the tenant isn’t named in the zoning application. Wiederhold said the contract prevents him from disclosing the name.
Brian Henry, who chairs the Planning Commission, hasn’t met with Sunbelt, but he did get a glossy presentation in the mail after the company filed its application this week. “I haven’t sat down and perused it,” he said.
But he agreed the issue of improving the rundown Pawleys Island Plaza will be different from a new development. He said traffic will be an important consideration.
While Sunbelt points to economic benefits from the project, Henry said if those are part of the equation, the impacts on existing business need to be considered too. Walmart “has had a negative effect on local business” in other areas, he said.
It’s also important to consider the effect on tourism, Henry said. The Pawleys Island brand is “rustic, different, not Myrtle Beach.”
That’s a concern for Otis.
“How can we maintain what we cherish, what makes us different, and what feeds our economy, when we end up looking like the corner of Highway 17 and 501 in Myrtle Beach?” he asked.
The impacts to local business were raised in Georgetown, which has a 150,000-square-foot Walmart, said Boyd Johnson. Now the county planning director, he was city manager when that store opened.
“Some people hate Walmart in general. It takes away from the mom and pop stores,” he said.
Johnson said the economic arguments won’t weigh as heavily as the zoning requirements in the staff review.
He learned one lesson from the Georgetown experience. “I never thought anyone would shop for groceries at Walmart,” he said. “Boy, was I wrong.”
That could be an issue at Pawleys Island, O’Connell said.
“I hear a lot of complaints about the local grocery shopping options,” he said. “Walmart has been very effective” in that market.
He also noted that there was strong opposition to Lowe’s from adjacent residential communities. At Pawleys Island Plaza, neighbors have lived with commercial development for over 25 years.
But for all the crowds and their bright green Don’t Box the Neck T-shirts and signs, O’Connell said what really defeated Lowe’s was sound politics; lining up enough votes from County Council.
The hoopla was “colorful, quite frankly it was fun, but I have no illusions that it was the tipping point,” he said.