Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer and one launching a Maryland expansion, is eyeing a potential store site in West County.
The 30-year-old discount chain founded by Sam Walton, a 74-year-old charismatic billionaire who died Sunday of bone cancer, is considering buying 50 acres at Baltimore-Washington Parkway and Route 198owned by Russett Center, a new 613-acre community.
Russett, which will build some 3,500 homes over the next seven years and has set aside that parcel for commercial development, began talks with Wal-Mart earlier this year, said Joel Mostrom, project manager. Russett Center Limited Partnership is working out a sales contract for 50 acres, he said.
"They're one of the strongest retailers in the nation," Mostrom said. "Their track record speaks well for itself."
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Kristin Stehben confirmed yesterday that the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter is looking at the site, adding that "nothing is definite."
In preliminary talks with Russett, Wal-Mart real estate officials had discussed buying the property, then building a 400,000-square-foot retail center to house a Wal-Mart and other stores, Mostrom said. But Stehben said she was unaware of Wal-Mart planning to lease space to other merchants.
"That doesn't sound like us," she said.
Mostrom said he expects to know by May whether the Wal-Mart deal will go through. He said the retailer has beenevaluating the local market and development costs and possibly considering other sites.
The chain also has asked the Howard County Zoning Board for a commercial designation on a 54-acre office/research parcel in Ellicott City, where it wants to build a Wal-Mart and a Sam's Wholesale Club, a member's-only discount warehouse.
During one of eight hearings on that request, Michael Davis, real estate manager,said Wal-Mart had chosen Ellicott City because an alternate site in Columbia would be too close to the proposed Anne Arundel County store.
A move into Anne Arundel would be part of a retail expansion of nearly two dozen locations in Maryland and Virginia. Wal-Mart began its thrust into Maryland last year with stores in Prince Frederick, Easton and Hagerstown. A store opened in Waldorf last week, while another will open in Elkton this year. Construction is expected to begin this month on a Westminster store, and a Sam's Club will open in Parole by mid-summer.
The new stores fit into Wal-Mart's latest expansion strategy. The discounter that started in under-served areas of therural South and Midwest has increasingly edged toward fiercely competitive, metropolitan areas.
By stressing low overhead, customer service and rock-bottom prices on groceries, health and beauty aids, housewares, apparel, sporting goods, toys and electronics, the retailerhas shot ahead of Sears, Roebuck & Co., K mart Corp. and Ames Department Stores Inc. in sales and profits.
With 1,735 Wal-Marts and 212 Sam's Wholesale Clubs in 40 states, the company racked up nearly $44 billion in sales last year. Officials say 150 more stores will openthis year.
Founder Sam Walton worked his way up from J.C. Penney Co. management trainee to become one of the wealthiest men in America. He opened Walton's 5 & 10 in 1950 in Bentonville, Ark., and the first Wal-Mart Discount City in 1962 in Rogers, Ark.
Known as "Mr. Sam" to employees, Walton was famous for directing employee pep ralliesat stores, making workers stockholders and encouraging them to create their own marketing schemes.
Besides thousands of potential customers who will live in Russett's houses, town houses and apartments, Wal-Mart officials liked the easy accessibility the Baltimore-Washington Parkway offered, Mostrom said.
Russett's six home builders started the first homes last fall. Builders have sold more than 250 units, and the first homeowners went to settlement in January, Mostrom said. So far, 50 families have moved in.