Thursday, May 18, 2006

Guess who's back...back again

Well, it was bound to happen. Wal-Mart is back, and this time they are looking to build their 24-hour Supercenter in Lancaster, at what is now the Lancaster Golf Center. From yesterday's Sentinel and Enterprise:

LANCASTER -- A Wal-Mart representative has presented town officials with plans to build a 200,000-square-foot "super" facility in North Lancaster, according to Board of Selectmen Chair David Dunn.

Dunn said the shopping complex, which would be built off Route 2 on the current home of Lancaster Golf Center, would also include three lots on Old Turnpike Road for other businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops.

The main store would include a grocery store, a garden center and a department store, he said.

So here we go again, with another large-scale development pushing out a locally-owned business. The article suggests that the Lancaster Golf Center may relocate to another parcel in the same area, but I'm skeptical of that. If this parcel was so attractive for commercial development, what will keep the owners of the Golf Center from selling their remaining land for another development? It's too bad. Not that Lancaster needs a driving range, but it's convenient on those days that I like to frustrate myself without spending four hours on the course.

But in a couple of ways, this is fundamentally different from the development issues that Leominster has been having, and that I have written about in previous posts.

First, development in one part of town has not been putting pressure on similar businesses in another part of town. In Leominster, new restaurants like Chili's, and the proposed Friday's and Olive Garden threaten to cut into the business of city restaurants. Because Lancaster has almost no retail development as it is (no retail stores, groceries, one pizza joint and two diners), bringing in a Wal-Mart, restaurants, etc. won't have the same effect on the businesses in their community that it would have in Leominster.

Secondly, the proposed development in Lancaster is not in a residential neighborhood. The issues that the developers of Orchard Hill and the Rte. 117 site have faced stem in large part because they are in or abut residential neighborhoods. People are worried about how the increase in traffic, noise, light pollution, etc. will affect their way of life. No one lives within walking distance of the Lancaster site. In that sense, it is a good place for development.

As you can imagine, the mayor of Leominster is not too pleased. In today's Sentinel, he responded:

"I've said right along that they've identified this area and they're going to end up somewhere," Mayor Dean J. Mazzarella said. "I said this would happen, but I'm not happy to say I told you so."

The proposed store's location is particularly painful because it is almost literally on the city line, meaning the community impact will be large but the direct financial compensation will be zero, officials said Wednesday.

"We'll still get the traffic. In fact, it will probably be a worse situation," Mazzarella said, referring to the Route 117 proposal, which Wal-Mart abandoned last May. We'll get everything, but we won't get the tax revenue."

I'm guessing the response of Lancaster officials would be that revenge is a dish best served cold. A few years ago, Mayor Mazzarella blew up an agreement with Lancaster and Lunenburg to share sewer lines in this area because he feared that Lancaster officials would develop the land in this part of town. Rumors at the time specifically mentioned Target or Wal-Mart. Mayor Mazzarella claimed that he was opposing the project because he needed to protect Leominster businesses such as Searstown mall.

Of course, once Lancaster was no longer a viable option for development, the climate magically changed from one where our businesses needed protecting, to one where Target and Wal-Mart would be good for Leominster because they would spur competition and bring more people to town to shop.

And now that the development is on the other side of the town line, traffic will suddenly be a problem for the city. I don't see how having Leominsterians travel rte. 2 to Wal-Mart will be worse for the traffic situation than having us clog up Lancaster and Central Streets to get to a development in town.

Leominster might benefit from having leaders who can credibly oppose this development on behalf of the city, but the mayor has no basis to argue against the project and he knows it. He can't fight it on grounds that Leominster businesses might suffer (and they probably will) because he was in favor of this very project when it was proposed for Leominster. And he can't fight it on the basis of traffic impact, since the attitude towards Lancaster was "the development's not in your town, you don't have to worry about it" when the Wal-Mart was proposed for rte. 117.

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