Wal-mart Lends Clout To Hagerstown's 'Platinum Mile'

April 12, 1992|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

When Wal-Mart planners decided to move up Interstate 81 with new stores in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, they probably felt most at home in Hagerstown.

CSX railroad had the land, and the cityand county were offering a 90 percent break on property taxes for five years.

And, unlike the land in Ellicott City where Wal-Mart hopes to build a department store and Sam's Club warehouse, it was already zoned for commercial use. No hassles with county planners, no haggling overroad improvements, no nine nights of Zoning Board hearings with a crowd of angry residents.

When the Wal-Mart store opened just after Christmas, Hagerstown Mayor Steven Sager stood on a stage and sang "God Bless America" with Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

Although no residences are next to the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club in Hagerstown, some homeowners near the city's commercial area said the district's rapid development caught them by surprise.

Fred Nastri, a 37-year-old prison psychologist, and his wife, Jeannine, own a house about 50 yardsfrom the warehouse-sized Lowe's home center, which is across the street from Wal-Mart.

By the time they knew anything about the "Platinum Mile" commercial district being planned, workmen were already clearing trees for the Lowe's center behind their family home of 30 years.

Had they known earlier, they would have protested.

Rich Bell, 34, a cement worker, lives a few doors down from the Nastris.

Living out the fears of Wal-Mart opponents in Ellicott City -- residents who say traffic congestion and decreased property values will result -- his family suffers from blaring loudspeakers from the Lowe's lumber yard, lights shining into their windows and trash blowing into their back yard.

In fact, Bell says he would rather live behind Wal-Mart, partly because it has a wooden stockade fence behind it.

Given the choice of warehouse-sized stores or an 80-foot office building, which could be built under current zoning on the Ellicott City site, Bell says he would choose the office building.

Next-door neighbor Harry Hesson, a retired state employee, is more forgiving.

"As far as I'm concerned, they're decent neighbors. I'd rather have that than a bunch of cracker boxes," he said, referring to a low-income housing project he feared would be built behind his house.

Yet for Hagerstown, Wal-Mart was just what the city wanted: another large-scaleretailer to add luster to the "Platinum Mile." The district sits next to the 1970s shopping mall, which is outside the city limits.

The mall has already lured shoppers to the suburbs, Sager says, so any damage that the nearby Wal-Mart could have inflicted on the downtown business area has probably been done.

"The Valley Mall clobbered Main Street," Sager says.

Hagerstown's Wal-Mart is a regional store, something Wal-Mart says it won't be in Howard County. The company says it is aiming at Howard County residents, but foes say much of thebusiness will come from outside the county.

Outside the Wal-Mart and Sam's Club in Hagerstown last Wednesday, a number of out-of-statelicense plates could be seen in the parking lot.

William English,65, who drove from Martinsburg, W.Va., to shop at the Sam's Club wholesale buying club, explained the attraction.

"They have good help. They're always pleasant," he said. "They'll look at your credit card or your check and call you by your first name. It makes you feel good."

Curiosity brought Kathleen Tipton, 39, to see the Hagerstown Wal-Mart, despite the Wal-Mart back home in Gettysburg, Pa.

"I wanted to see how it was different," said Tipton, who is a regular Wal-Mart customer.

"When it first opened in Gettysburg, it was really excellent. But since then, they've kind of gone downhill," said Tipton, a grocery store cashier. "I think the stock's gotten stale -- you can go in there, and it's just predictable."

Now Wal-Mart is just another department store, she says.

Fred Teeter Jr., executive vicepresident of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce, doesn't think Wal-Mart lives up to its reputation as a retail juggernaut.

"If you were doing well when Wal-Mart arrived, although you may see a brief fall-off, more than likely you're going to see a good percentage of that business return," Teeter said.

Although it has a"really good formula and they do some interesting things," he said, "it's really not much different than the other stores in which I've been shopping for some time."

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