Wal-Mart construction runs into drain snag

It's looking like it will be after the coming Christmas holidays before Columbus residents are shopping at Wal-Mart Supercenters on Gateway Road and Airport Thruway.

Full-blown construction has yet to begin on the 6475 Gateway Road store although site preparation began in March. The project apparently bogged down after crews discovered a former drainage basin that was too soft for the 203,819-square-foot store's concrete pad.

"They've just gotten into dirt that has a lot of organic material in it, and they've had to dig that out. They're removing that material and putting good dirt in it and firming it up," said Ben Billings, the Columbus developer who sold 22 acres to Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The world's largest retailer paid $2.4 million for the property, which is part of a 54-acre tract, the balance of which will be developed by The Billings Co.

The soft, swampy drainage basin was covered up by a contractor about 15 years ago, Billings said. It was part of a deal the developer worked out at the time with a highway construction firm that exchanged dirt on the site for grading work and reseeding of grass.

"As it turned out that old drainage basin ran down where the front of the building is," said Billings, who estimates the Wal-Mart contractor could begin erecting steel for the new store within two weeks.

It typically takes 10 months to construct a supercenter. If the current drought persists, crews may be able to make up some time on the project. But less than six months remain before the holiday shopping season officially begins after Thanksgiving. The grand opening could be pushed to early 2008.

Meanwhile, the old non-supercenter Wal-Mart at 2801 Airport Thruway has been completely torn down. Previous estimates pegged the opening of the downsized, 156,160-square-foot supercenter for early 2008. The site also is expected to have several outparcel businesses as it is developed.

A 208,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter and a 153,000-square-foot Sam's Club opened to huge crowds in January at 5448 Whittlesey Road in the Columbus Park Crossing shopping area.

The two new stores are expected to take pressure off that store, Wal-Mart executives have said, alleviating traffic congestion as consumers venture to nearby Airport Thruway and Gateway Road in the Midland area of Columbus. But there still is no progress on finding a site to replace existing non-supercenter Wal-Mart at 4701 Buena Vista Road. Wal-Mart has repeatedly said it wants a supercenter in south Columbus and has been searching several years for land.

Glen Wilkins, Wal-Mart's senior manager of public affairs for Georgia, said the current Buena Vista Road store has several years remaining on its property lease. That would seemingly mean the retailer is under little pressure to find a new site, but Wilkins isn't buying that notion.

"We're under pressure because we want to better serve our customers, and a supercenter would do great in that location," he said. "We want to make sure that we find the right spot for the customers."

On Friday, Wal-Mart's leadership said the chain plans to scale back the number of planned U.S. supercenter store openings next year by more than 25 percent, a move that will drop its capital expenditures by $1.5 billion in the current fiscal year

Wal-Mart says it will open between 190 and 200 new supercenters in the U.S. during its current 2008 fiscal year, with an average of 170 supercenters each year for the coming three years.

Last year, the retailer said it planned to open between 265 and 270 supercenters in 2008. Approximately 80 of the supercenters originally scheduled to open next year will now open in 2009.

"The priority for a potential store is selecting a location that makes the most efficient use of capital resources and aligns with market growth priorities," Wal-Mart Vice Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer John Menzer told shareholders gathered at the firm's annual meeting. "We also have been focused this year on reducing cannibalization of existing stores via our more strategic selection of U.S. real estate projects."

The new estimates for store openings in fiscal 2008 include 70 relocations and 40 expansions of its traditional Wal-Mart discount stores into supercenters.

Billings anticipates breaking ground this summer on his shopping center that will fall in the "shadow" of the Gateway Road supercenter. It includes a strip center and five acres of outparcel property.

He attended the recent International Council of Shopping Center conference in Las Vegas to meet with possible tenants. Some announcements may come within a month or so, but Billings said he is hesitant to begin construction before getting commitments, especially on the outparcels.

"I would hate to go in and plat it for 1-acre lots and along come a Ruby Tuesday or somebody and say we have to have an acre and a half. Or along come a Verizon store and say we only need seven-tenths of an acre and I have a 1-acre site," he said. "We are trying to firm up who these tenants are going to be and engineer it for that specific use."