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Walmart plans for growth in Maryland

Red anti-Walmart signs dot a stretch of Route 924 in Harford County, where people have packed public meetings and organized protests. Petitions are circulating through housing developments, and residents are writing to politicians.

But it's not corporate labor practices or the impact of discount pricing on nearby mom-and-pop stores — issues that have triggered protests in other communities — that have many residents in an uproar. They're upset over a three-mile move planned by the giant retailer, from Abingdon to Bel Air, where it wants to build a bigger store that offers more groceries.

"This is not a Walmart issue," said Bel Air resident Skip Panowitz, who opposes the proposed move. "A lot of these folks are Walmart shoppers, and they admit it. It's their favorite store. It's just the location."

These kinds of clashes may play out in communities across Maryland, as the giant retailer plans to expand stores or build from scratch to create eight more supercenters in a national reshuffling of its retail footprint.

While the company has long been a target of labor unions, environmentalists and others, today's critics are just as likely to raise ordinary development issues such as increased traffic — or even to decry the loss of their neighborhood Walmart.

More than half of Americans live within five miles of a Walmart, and opinions about the retailer — both positive and negative — run deep.

In Abingdon, residents near the current location worry about the loss of a convenient shopping option and a vacant eyesore that could be left behind. Residents near the proposed Bel Air site fear over-development in the area, while others support the proposal.

Many of Walmart's plans, such as the one in Harford County, involve relocating existing stores to sites where the company can build supercenters that offer a full line of groceries.

"They either expand or move stores every week. They want every original Walmart, or almost every original Walmart, to become a supercenter," said Charles Fishman, author of the book "The Walmart Effect."

Walmart has a highly sophisticated real estate operation for picking new locations to maximize customer traffic and profits, Fishman said. And the company "is very skilled at pitting jurisdictions against each other," tempting local officials with the prospect of tax revenue and jobs.

Still, it's getting harder for Walmart to open new stores, he said. Many of the good retail spots are taken, and communities have gotten better at organizing opposition.

"It's no secret what Walmart's impact is, and it's no secret what arguments you can muster to resist Walmart," Fishman said. "Twenty years ago, it was much harder for people who didn't want a Walmart to open."

The Walmart debate, however, has evolved.

Early resistance to Walmart stemmed from the damage the competition did to local merchants, Fishman said. But then, the rise of all big-box retailers meant the decline of independent retailers.

Now, he said, "those objections have less power just because the landscape is so different. There are fewer local merchants in many communities."

Walmarts can still spell trouble for traditional grocery stores that are already struggling to compete against both discount grocers and upscale food outlets, retail experts say.

"They've definitely pulled customers away and the grocery dollars away from supermarkets," said Jeremy Diamond, food consultant with the Diamond Group in Baltimore. "By them expanding more and more, it pulls away dollars from the independents and from the local chains and larger ones."

On the other hand, some local officials welcome Walmart as a strong anchor in shopping centers that can stimulate growth in an area. They also welcome promised jobs. The company says it has created more than 1,000 jobs in Maryland this year.

But labor unions say Walmarts push down wages for the community. Last month, some workers walked off the job in what they called the first-ever strikes in the company's history.

"Most of those jobs are part-time, where people can't make a living off them," said Patrick O'Neill, executive vice president and organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents employees of grocery stores including Safeway and Giant. "Now, especially when Walmart's almost reached a saturation point, I think more communities have definitely recognized the negative effects of Walmarts."

Maryland has 48 Walmarts, and the chain is planning more.

Nationally, "Walmart has been on a very big expansion kick for about the last three years," said supermarket analyst David J. Livingston of DJL Research.

The company has eight projects in the planning and approval process, including the Bel Air site, Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said in a statement. Three of the projects are new supercenters, while the other five are expansions or relocations.

This year, the retailer has built new supercenters in Denton and in Randallstown. In Ellicott City, Walmart expanded an older store into a supercenter, its sixth expansion in Maryland this year.

"These expansions have been very popular with customers, who enjoy the convenience of one-stop shopping and better access to fresh produce and other groceries at affordable prices," Wertz said.

Many welcomed the Randallstown store, which opened in October. Residents and Baltimore County officials hope the store will attract restaurants and new retailers to the aging Liberty Road corridor.

"Baltimore has a pretty strong local market," said Jeff Mayhew, the county's head of community planning. "But when a Walmart, a national chain, comes in, it's a recognition that the local market is strong and the national folks think they can provide a service and make some money, along with providing a job."

In contrast, the possible relocation of another Baltimore County Walmart at the Carroll Island Shopping Center has stirred controversy.

Walmart is eyeing the nearby Middle River Depot — a vacant site recently zoned for redevelopment — to open a supercenter. That prompted the owner of the shopping center where Walmart is now, the Cordish Cos., to help fund a contentious referendum drive to challenge the zoning votes that would allow the depot redevelopment.

In the city's Remington neighborhood, plans for a Walmart drew community opposition. The project was approved by the City Council, but critics filed a lawsuit. The company still hopes to move forward, Wertz said.

In Bel Air, a top concern is traffic. There are grocery stores, fast food restaurants, drug stores and other retailers along the road from the current Walmart to the proposed new site at Plumtree Road and Route 924, now an empty lot filled with trees and brush.

The Harford County Council passed a resolution asking the State Highway Administration to deny access to Route 924. Local officials also tried to convince Walmart to expand its Abingdon location rather than move.

"People in general that I've spoken to are not anti-Walmart," said Councilman Jim McMahan, who sponsored the resolution and believes it's a public safety issue because two schools and a new firehouse are located near the proposed Bel Air Walmart site. "But with what they have seen of the design and the breadth and scope of it, they simply do not feel that it is the proper fit for the location."

Abingdon resident Steve Tobia said many residents there want the store to stay put. "They are located in a great position. They can serve more communities right where they are."

Wertz said the company plans to work with state transportation officials and will spend $3 million on traffic improvements. "We have a common interest with the Bel Air community ... in avoiding traffic bottlenecks," Wertz said.

People are worried, too, about effects on local business, increased crime, and the vacant storefront that Walmart would leave in Abingdon, said Bel Air resident Kathy Dunkleberger.

Despite the roadblocks, Walmart is expected to continue aggressively pursue growth, retail experts say, especially as competitors have suffered in the down economy.

"They don't ever rest," said Fishman, the author. "They are not ever satisfied. And as an example of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, you can admire that. … But in a company the scale and impact of Walmart, that can look less like innovation and more like relentless competitive battering."

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