Three Walmart stores in Columbus moving toward construction

It has been nearly a year since city and state officials joined Walmart executives in a ceremonial announcement that the mega-retailer was planning to construct a supercenter on the old Baker High School site -- yet the grass is still green there.

But the project hasn't been derailed. It's just on a slower track than estimated last May, when a timeline of breaking ground by the end of 2014 was tossed out by officials at the formal gathering.

"Nothing's changed. You've just got to understand that these things take time," said Jack Martin, who is working to lure additional tenants to the 18-acre Victory Drive supercenter site for Atlanta-based development company Bright-Meyers. "I would love to give you hard and fast dates, but the fact is we've been working on the numbers and trying to make everything work correctly."

Amanda Henneberg, spokeswoman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, confirmed Friday that construction on the 158,583-square-foot supercenter is projected to start this summer, with the grocery and general merchandise store expected to open in the summer of 2016.

That's the same timeline for a 41,983-square-foot Walmart Neighborhood Market -- a pure grocery store format -- that is planned on eight acres of land that once was home to Daniel Middle School on Manchester Expressway, across from Columbus Technical College.

A second 42,000-square-foot neighborhood market is to be built on Blackmon Road in northeast Columbus, just off J.R. Allen Parkway. Henneberg said work on it will start this summer as well, but the timeline is faster, with it targeted for opening by winter in early 2016.

The Blackmon Road store will be located on 6.5 acres of a 35-acre parcel of land owned by Columbus developer Ben Billings, who plans to construct additional retail space himself around the Neighborhood Market, just as he has done at the Walmart Supercenter he attracted to Gateway Road in recent years.

"We're set to close (Walmart's property acquisition) in May and they'll start construction immediately," Billings said. "They're pressed. They want this store open in January."

In fact, there has been plenty of behind-the-scenes maneuvering taking place in recent months to make way for the Victory Drive supercenter and the neighborhood markets.

Several weeks ago, the Housing Authority of Columbus and the Development Authority of Columbus sold two pieces of property on the Victory Drive site to Bright-Meyers Victor LLC for a combined $2,183,909, according to city property transactions.

That sale included ground where Woodside Apartments once sat and the Baker High land, home to the school from its opening in 1943 to its closure in 1991. The building was torn down in 2011 after a major fire. Bright Meyers Victory LLC then turned around and sold the property to Pamela Kohn, trustee of Wal-Mart Real Estate.

Bright-Meyers also is handling the project for the neighborhood market on the old Daniel Elementary School site, with the Muscogee County School District recently closing its sale of that property to the development firm for $1.2 million.

At this point, the projects have now entered the phase of final design, permitting and inspections by city engineers, said Rick Jones, director of the Columbus Planning Department. He estimated ground could be broken on the Walmart Supercenter site on Victory Drive by mid-spring.

"They have submitted plans on that one and those plans are under review by inspections," he said of Columbus Inspections & Codes, which is responsible for reviewing building plans and granting permits. "The city also is working toward providing necessary signal improvements out there as part of the overall project itself."

A Georgia Department of Transportation traffic study performed in 2012 showed 37,830 vehicles a day passing the property upon which the supercenter will be constructed. The traffic counts fluctuate between 27,640 and 35,510 vehicles daily at different points along Victory Drive before reaching the South Commons area near downtown.

The full-size supercenter will be accompanied by a mix of retail shops, with Martin working to fill about 21,000 square feet of commercial space there. A site plans shows a gas station on the site that has been dubbed, "Victory Square." It is situated at the intersection of Victory and Benning drives.

The Walmart Neighborhood Market on Manchester Expressway is being called "Daniel Plaza," with that development acccompanied by 10,500 square feet of retail space and a gas station.

Billings said the neighborhood market on Blackmon Road has drawn "serious interest" from businesses wanting to be near the Walmart store. He estimates his portion of the development will have about a dozen tenants, although none have signed any leases with the project yet to break ground as Walmart wraps up its design and permitting work.

"We intend to have ours built and open up at the same time as Walmart," he said of the market, which will have a gas station as well.

The Blackmon Road site, which has plenty of residential development around it, also is being designed with a roundabout, a circular intersection that doesn't require a traffic signal. The city has been installing the low-maintenance features at various intersections in recent years.

The three new Walmart stores also are expected to fall under newer ordinances that require additional buffers and landscaping to make the centers more aesthetically appealing and keep them from becoming literal hot spots from all of the asphalt parking.

The three new stores will join an already heavy presence by Walmart in the area. The retailer now operates a supercenter and Sam's Club on Whittlesey Boulevard, supercenters on Airport Thruway and Gateway Road, and a non-supercenter on Buena Vista Road -- all in Columbus. It also a supercenter on U.S. Highway 280 in Phenix City.