Wal-Mart in Howard?

November 11, 1991

Even in the best of times, it's tough to say no to a major retail presence. That becomes doubly hard when it's the nation's No. 1 merchant offering hundreds of jobs and millions in tax revenue. Yet Howard County's Planning Board has nixed Wal-Mart's proposal to build 250,000 square feet of shopping space at the intersection of Routes 40 and 29 near Ellicott City. It seems the rezoning needed to make the project happen doesn't meet the legal test -- a noticeable shift in the character of the neighborhood or a mistake in original zoning. Even if a case could be made for either of these, the board is worried about traffic bottlenecks. People who live near the site, meanwhile, are complaining loudly about noise, trash and lights.

These are red herrings. What this is really about is that Wal-Mart doesn't fit the county's plans for this particular parcel -- a blend of office, research, health care and residential space. The easiest and most obvious way to resolve this conflict would be for Wal-Mart to find another spot. But the big discounter claims no other site works as well and hints that it may be forced to look elsewhere, presumably in another jurisdiction. There's no reason to think it won't. The company is opening stores soon in Prince Frederick, Hagerstown, Easton and Waldorf and the corporation is rumored to be on the prowl in Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

For Howard, Wal-Mart represents a big draw -- not only for shoppers but for other merchants. The two stores it wants to build -- a 119,000 square foot Wal-Mart and a 134,000 square foot Sam's Club -- would create better than 400 new jobs and generate an estimated $1.2 million in fees and tax revenues.

This is nothing to sneeze at when few businesses are expanding and many are struggling to stay afloat. The county council -- which will ultimately decide this issue wearing its Zoning Board hat -- has to balance this potential economic gain with the county's notions of how this space should be used. Every effort ought to be made to keep Wal-Mart in Howard. The important thing to remember is that Wal-Mart wants to be in the county and the county wants Wal-Mart. It would be a shame to see Howard lose an important economic development plum simply because it wasn't willing to bend a little.

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