Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Walmart Supercenter too good an opportunity to squander
LENOX >> Maybe I'm missing something, but it appears that the proposal by Waterstone Retail Development for a Walmart Supercenter is an obvious winner for Pittsfield and its long-vacant, grandly titled William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.
The front-page photo in Thursday's Eagle was worth the proverbial thousand words.
The 190,000-square-foot Walmart would be built on the gravesite of GE's "teens" parcel on Woodlawn Avenue, now a vast wasteland of concrete foundations atop underground infrastructure that Waterstone would spend $12 million just to clean up — "remediation" is the formal description of the required work.
This may be a case of three strikes and you're in for Waterstone, which approached the city in 2011 and 2013 with proposals for retail development on the site without identifying the potential tenant.
It turns out that Walmart has been the secret suitor all along, dangling the prospect of a spanking-new jumbo-box store, complete with a discount supermarket that includes fresh produce.
If the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA), the Community Development Board and the City Council approve the project, as they should after careful analysis and thorough public discussion, Walmart would vacate its current store at Berkshire Crossing — not a shoppers' paradise, to put it gently.
The new location would be much closer to its target customers, the less-affluent majority population of the city, especially residents of the adjacent, downtrodden Morningside neighborhood.
It's not that I'm a fan of Walmart, which has not been known for generosity to its employees, many of whom had to resort to food stamps and other taxpayer subsidies to feed, clothe and house their families.
But the behemoth retailer is now paying its full-time "associates" $13.38 an hour, on average, and gave more than 1.2 million of them a pay increase this year, capping a two-year, $2.7 billion "investment in workers," according to its website.
The company, the largest private-sector U.S. employer, claims to be "an industry leader for competitive pay and benefits" and says it promoted more than 150,000 workers from part-time to full-time status last year.
Bottom line: All employees hired before this past Jan. 1 are earning at least $10 an hour, and new hires this year start at $9 an hour and move to $10 or more after passing the company's training program.
Still not a workers' paradise but better than unemployment and at least a step up for past practices.
There's a long list of pros for approving the project despite concerns of those who long for a major industrial employer to fulfill the business park's original mission as a new home for manufacturers rather than retailers. Sad to say, those were the days, my friend, even though we thought they'd never end.
Besides, it's called a business park, not an industrial park, and close to 70 percent of the U.S. economy is based on consumer spending. Walmart qualifies as the supersized locomotive pulling the retail freight.
By the numbers, the pros are:
• A major investment by Waterstone, New England's No. 2 real estate owner, in a forlorn section of the city — $30 million total, including the $10 million price tag to clean up the site.
• A net gain of 85 to 100 positions, mostly full-time, once the complex is built by more than 350 construction workers.
• An infusion of urgently needed tax revenue to the city — an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 a year.
• An entirely private investment, without government grants or subsidies, tax abatement deals or other use of public money, according to Waterstone.
• Commitments by the developer to upgrade the look of the Woodlawn Avenue neighborhood, improve traffic flow at the Tyler Street and Dalton Avenue intersection including a new traffic signal, and add public transit stops at the business park site as well as new walkways for pedestrian access.
• A revival of despoiled land that could be a one-and-only opportunity. As the development company argues, "due to the vast oversupply of comparable existing vacant industrial facilities and developable land immediately available at literally a fraction of the cost, it is not economically viable for virtually any other use to develop this parcel."
• Last, but far from least: In the long run, the aptly named Woodlawn Crossing mixed-use development would add life sciences, research and development, medical offices, smaller-scale retail and even light manufacturing.
Here's the single con argument: Walmart's current leased store off Hubbard Avenue would become vacant, although its landlord, Brixmore Property Group of New York City, could find a new tenant in short order.
PEDA, the public-private agency in charge of developing the business park, now awaits a lease-to-purchase agreement from Waterstone within 60 days. Once the project is completed, Waterstone would buy the parcel from PEDA for just over $1 million.
'Easy to say no'
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, while welcoming the potential deal subject to close scrutiny and due process, acknowledged the controversy that engulfed Waterstone's two previous approaches to the city.
"As it has in the past, we know that the proposed development will lend itself to a spectrum of varying and staunch perspectives about the nature of the development and its place in Pittsfield," she said.
Significantly, she added, "It is important to realize that while it's really easy to say no without further discussion, it's often harder to engage in dialog that challenges us to consider positions other than our own."
Tyer, hoping for "a way to establish a finished product that not only works for the developer, but the neighborhood and landscape as well," pointed out that "maintaining a fair and balanced process, in spite of varying perspectives, ensures that we keep our city open to not just this particular project, but potential economic development opportunities in the future."
Well-stated. This is a time when contentious, raucous and often vicious discussion permeates too many proposals that come before our cities and towns, not to mention our nation.
The stakes are too high for Pittsfield to brush aside a promising development offer, especially the mixed-use aspect, out of misplaced nostalgia for the past, when it depended on one corporate employer's ultimate, ruthless pursuit of profit that ended in desertion of the city and a malady of environmental pollution that remains to be cured.
Contact Clarence Fanto at email@example.com
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