City officials, developers discuss what it would take to bring a Walmart to St. James.
Community leaders in St. James say they'd happily welcome the construction of a new Walmart if the city of Rolla is hesitant.
"We'd drive to Bentonville and pick them up if they wanted us to," said St. James Mayor Dennis Wilson.
A rezoning request for a Neighborhood Market near Forum Drive and 18th Street was not recommended by the city's planning and zoning commission in July. Then a public hearing for the rezoning scheduled for July 21 was delayed at the request of Walmart. Then, Rolla city officials learned that Walmart had withdrawn its rezoning request — for now.
Walmart spokesman John Bisio said the decision to withdraw its request was in part because the zoning designation wasn't appropriate for development needs.
The company had originally requested property in Rolla be rezoned from R-1, single-family, to C-3, highway commercial, however it withdrew its request July 30.
Bisio, who is director of public affairs and government relations with Walmart, said he expects Walmart to submit another rezoning request in Rolla.
The withdrawal stoked the flames of speculation that the company may be looking for more willing partners in different locations—perhaps even St. James.
"I don't want to speak out of school and say that we are reconsidering the Rolla site…," Bisio said. "…We are always evaluating the marketplace and surveying to ensure that we are bringing the best level of service to communities. It's a good stance to keep your ear to ground."
That means sifting through analytics that identify where customers are traveling from in order to shop at its stores and whether a city has the minimum threshold of potential employees and customers.
Why not St. James?
Commercial developer Kevin Guffey, owner of American Realty & Development, who has been involved in a number of large commercial projects across Missouri, said St. James seemed like a perfect market for a Walmart.
“This is just my opinion, but I don't know why they don't put one in St. James with all the employees who work at the distribution center," Guffey said.
About 800 workers are employed at the Walmart Distribution Center located in St. James. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, St. James has a population of 4,216 residents, while neighboring Cuba, Missouri, home to a small Walmart site, has a population of 3,356 residents.
"I would think the residents of Cuba and Steelville would utilize the Neighborhood Market if it were in St. James," Guffey said, reasoning that the Walmart in Cuba, Missouri, carries a limited range of groceries and dry goods.
Guffey explained Walmart often expands with Neighborhood Markets in order to alleviate pressure from their Supercenter locations.
"It's simple macroeconomics," Guffey said.
A retail store, much like a factory, operates more efficiently at 85 percent capacity than at 100 percent, Guffey said, much like a car runs more efficiently at 55 mph rather than 75 mph.
"They become unable to stock the shelves fast enough," Guffey said, which leads to overtime and other business expenses that eat into maximal profits.
Mike Woessner, president and chief executive officer of Investment Realty, which handles several commercial properties in St. James, said Walmart has not, to his knowledge, inquired about any St. James properties.
However, Woessner said, there are several properties that would fit the needs of a Walmart Neighborhood Market. He declined to speculate which properties might best serve the needs of such a development.
"There's always a possibility," Woessner said.
City officials have likewise yet to hear of any substantial inquiry, but it's often the case that they don't hear until property is transferred.
"In retail development, we never talk directly with the big companies. It's usually through a developer," Davis said. Developers will call with inquiries about properties, seeking to find out information about utilities.
Since retail companies typically work through private parties, it's often the case the city is among the last to know any official word on whether a project is going forward or not, like in the case of Dollar General Market that progressed as soon as six months ago, as far as sending construction plans to the city before faltering.
"It wasn't until we got their permit paperwork that we knew who we were working with," Davis said.
Davis didn't know what happened with the project, except that the company placed a contract on a commercial property and then cancelled it. The city still has the plans that Dollar General sent.
Much of the communication during the development process is mediated through a commercial real estate agent, Davis said, who calls and asks if the property meets certain requirements, which vary depending on the development.
"They often ask about utilities and road access and we answer all those questions," Davis said. "Sometimes they tell us before they make an announcement, sometimes they don't."
Davis couldn't specifically say whether Walmart or any commercial developers had recently called.
"Developers call but I don't know who they are representing," Davis said.
All of the recent inquiries had been north of where Interstate 44 bisects St. James, Davis said.
The mayor agreed.
"If you look at St. James, you can't go south much past Ed's Neighborhood Market, just because of the terrain," Wilson said. "As a city we'd have problems with services."
“Our most developable (retail) property is north on (State Route) 68," Wilson said. "And a little bit east and west on our outer roads."
Wilson pointed specifically to a tract of commercial property that sits on east State Route B.
"If you look at the interstate there, there is a slight bend in the road," Wilson said. "So for a good mile in either direction, those vacant properties have a great line of sight, even the overpass being there, a sign above it would show for quite a ways.
"We are very fortunate that we have some really nice properties that are along the interstate," Wilson said.
There would be no obstacles for the city meeting the needs of an establishment like a Walmart Neighborhood Market, said officials, citing recent upgrades to both the water treatment and electrical infrastructure. "The issue usually comes down to property availability," Davis said.
The city has few incentives to draw a retail development like Walmart. The state has the incentive programs, Davis said.
"It's the state that grants the payroll tax rollbacks," he said.
However Davis did mention the possibility of the city using a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as a means to attract new business.
"What you basically do is, use the sales tax generated in the future to pay for the project for a set number of years," Davis said.
A willingness to meet a developer part-way is paramount in making such ventures work, Guffey said.
"The communities that grow the most are those that keep their arms open to progress and try to think of ways to help development," Guffey said. "It has to be a partnership in order to make them work."