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Walmart: Town of Pawleys Island takes lead in opposing project

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

“My wife cried when she read it,” Mike Adams said of plans for a Walmart store on Highway 17.

It didn’t take much discussion for Adams and his fellow members of Pawleys Island Town Council to adopt a resolution opposing the 119,600-square-foot store. The project is part of a proposed redevelopment of Pawleys Island Plaza, which is outside the town limits, but which the council says will affect the quality of life on the Waccamaw Neck if it opens the door to big-box retailers.

Mayor Bill Otis said the town will support the revival of the Don’t Box the Neck campaign that helped defeat plans for a 137,000-square-foot Lowe’s Home Improvement Center at the South Causeway in 2005. The town attorney told him Pawleys Island can help fund the effort.

“It seems like we did this eight years ago,” Otis said. “It’s a very different battle this time.”

Sunbelt Ventures, which acquired the plaza last month, wants to buy an adjacent tract for the Walmart, placing the store outside the “overlay zone” along Highway 17 where commercial buildings are limited to 45,000 square feet. Including it within the plaza requires approval from Georgetown County.

The Town Council resolution “expresses the council’s deep concern and opposition to the location of any ‘big box’ mass merchant in the Pawleys Island Community as being inconsistent with maintaining the culture, ambiance and quality of life.”

It calls on the county to reject the proposal and amend the zoning ordinance to prevent any stores larger than 45,000 square feet being built on Waccamaw Neck south of Brookgreen Gardens.

Otis called the placement of the Walmart outside the overlay zone, “legal subterfuge.”

“They’re saying this is a redevelopment. I look around and wonder how many other redevelopments can we have. The answer is: A lot,” he said.

Council Member Mary McAllister said she hasn’t heard anyone say they favor the Walmart.

County Council Member Bob Anderson, whose district includes the island and the plaza property, said the comments he’s heard have been “90-percent-plus against.”

He met this week with Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt. “I said, Look, I want this to be a win-win,” Anderson said. “The bottom line is: It’s a Walmart.”

He agreed something needs to be done with the center, which dates to the mid-1980s and lost its anchor grocery store in 1995. Anderson suggested something like the retail village at I’On, the “new urban” development in Mount Pleasant.

“That’s not what he does,” Anderson said.

Wiederhold said last week the tenant in the big-box store, whom he can’t name under the terms of his contract, sought the property because “for them, it’s under-served.”

Anderson, who was the last County Council member to meet with Sunbelt to look at the plans, said he discounted the developer’s argument that the project won’t set a precedent for other big-box retailers. “Someone will always try to get around the rules,” he said.

That’s a concern of the town, too.

“You open the floodgates,” Otis said.

The town of Pawleys Island isn’t alone in opposing big-box retailers.

Terry Munson, a Heritgage Plantation resident, started an online petition to the chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores, Mike Duke, saying residents “reject the notion of building a Walmart in our community. With two Walmarts within 20 minutes driving time, there is no reason or need for it, and we pledge that will not patronize it.”

The petition, hosted by signon.org, garnered nearly 800 signatures within a couple of days.

“We have plenty of Walmarts. I think they perform an excellent service,” said Munson, who is retired from IBM. “But it’s not like Starbucks. They don’t need to be on every corner.”

Munson said his concern isn’t Walmart itself, though he doesn’t like its employment policies.

“It’s the big-box thing,” he said. “The personality of Pawleys Island is that we’re all small shops. We like it that way.”

One of those who signed Munson’s petition was Charles Biddix, owner of Palmetto Ace Hardware. He opened the store five years ago after watching the Lowe’s project fail.

“I relied on the 45,000 square feet,” he said. “We’re here because of what the commissioners said they were going to do: keep it a small business community.”

Tom Warner, owner of Litchfield Books, is no stranger to the impact of national retailers on independent stores. His store is the largest independent bookstore left in the state.

While Walmart’s book selection won’t compete, “it certainly wouldn’t be helpful,” Warner said. “It would hurt a lot of the existing small businesses.”

And beyond that, “I think it would change the complexion of our community,” he said.

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