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Walmart: Meeting with developers draws small audience

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Like the Pawleys Island Plaza across the highway there was a lot of vacant space at the Pawleys Island Community Church for a meeting this week sponsored by the group that wants to redevelop the shopping center to include the area’s first big-box store.

“I thought there would be more people,” said Dusty Wiederhold, a partner in Sunbelt Ventures, which bought the center in July and plans a 119,500-square-foot retail building for its main tenant.

About 120 people attended the meeting organized to explain the project to residents in advance of tonight’s public hearing before the Georgetown County Planning Commission. Sunbelt’s request for a zoning change to allow the big-box store to be included in an expanded shopping center sparked the revival of the Don’t Box the Neck group that successfully campaigned against a proposal to build a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse on Highway 17 at the South Causeway in 2005.

Wal-Mart Stores is interested in the Pawleys Island Plaza redevelopment, and the role of the nation’s largest retailer in the area that is billed as the nation’s oldest resort was a constant theme at Monday’s meeting. Opponents cite studies that show a Walmart will likely force small businesses to close and lead to a net decrease in jobs.

Wiederhold said he was prepared to address those issues at the Planning Commission hearing. But he stressed that while Wal-Mart is interested, Sunbelt Ventures is looking for other tenants, citing Target, Home Depot and Lowe’s. “There are a number of tenants who would geographically meet the requirements,” he said.

“As developers, we would be better off if Wal-Mart would step up and say this is where they want to be,” said Mike Wooten, president of DDC Engineers, which designed the project. “Wal-Mart is the best draw for that shopping center. They are not the only one.”

Wiederhold said it’s also possible Wal-Mart would elect to build a smaller store, such as a Neighborhood Market, that would have about 60,000 square feet. That was the concept that initially attracted the company to the area. “There is always that possibility,” he said. “We keep our options open.”

The project got support from one member of the audience. “There are some of us who would love to have the Walmart come,” said Alice Young, a long-time area resident.

But Ann Berkes asked how the plaza would attract new tenants when the are so many retail vacancies in the area. That’s why a national retailer is important, Wiederhold said.

Bob O’Brien pointed out local businesses spend money in the community, unlike national chains. The impact of a national retailer will be minimal, Wiederhold said, adding, “I realize there’s some room for debate.”

Is it too late to stop the project, one person asked in a written question.

“It’s never too late,” Wiederhold said. “We went into this with our eyes wide open.”

The county limits commercial buildings in an “overlay zone” along Highway 17 to 45,000 square feet, but can allow up to 60,000 square feet in a “planned development” zoning district. The overlay zone only extends 500 feet from the highway, and Sunbelt wants to expand the Pawleys Island Plaza planned development to take in property so that the big-box store will be outside the zone.

The town of Pawleys Island has opposed the rezoning to allow the big-box store, although it is outside the town limits. Mayor Bill Otis attended the Sunbelt meeting and was also surprised it didn’t draw more people. He said a few things he heard at the meeting will bolster the arguments he and other opponents will make at today’s Planning Commission hearing.

Sunbelt’s admission that part of the property where it wants to place the big-box store is under contract and that closing is contingent on the rezoning refutes the developer’s argument that the big-box store is necessary to redevelop Pawleys Island Plaza, Otis said. “They have a pretty substantial investment” in the plaza already, he said.

And the fact that Sunbelt has found interest in the site from other national retailers “gives credence to the point that once we break this barrier to the big-box stores we will be inundated.”

While Otis was able to glean some useful insights, Wiederhold said there were no surprises for him at the meeting, other than the attendance. However, he told the audience that Sunbelt wasn’t prepared for the opposition. He said they met with Lowe’s officials to talk about the 2005 rezoning.

Asked why they didn’t take a lesson from the Lowe’s project, Wooten said there are major differences. Lowe’s was an undeveloped parcel; Pawleys Island Plaza is a run down center with an underlying chemical spill from a former dry cleaner that needs to be cleaned up. And the Lowe’s project impacted adjacent residential property, he said.

That prompted Lucille Grate to raise her hand. She lives on Petigru Drive behind the property Sunbelt has under contract for the big-box store. “Me personally, I don’t want it,” she said.

Read more about the project: Pawleys Island and Walmart

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