Merchants worry over Wal-Mart Where store locates will affect business

September 13, 1992|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

If Wal-Mart comes to Harford County, where the super-discount store drops anchor could hurt retailers in the Bel Air area.

The site that worries area merchants most is at Constant Friendship, some eight miles east of town.

Neither the Arkansas-based Wal-Mart nor Hess Enterprises Inc., one of the principal owners of the 100-acre parcel that abuts Route 24 and Interstate 95, would comment about plans for the property.

Wal-Mart has received site approvals in Aberdeen, on U.S. 40 near the entrance to Aberdeen Proving Ground, and in Elkton, in Cecil County. So far, the retailer has been non-committal about which of the regional sites would be most suitable.

William G. Carroll of Harford's planning and zoning office said Wal-Mart has also received site plan approval at Constant Friendship, which a few years ago was sought by Windsor Properties of Dallas, Texas, for development as a mall.

It is unlikely that Wal-Mart would build two stores in Harford County, Mr. Carroll said.

"We [the county] have approved the Constant Friendship site plan submitted by Wal-Mart, but I honestly don't know why Wal-Mart would want to build two stores less than eight miles apart," he said.

Whenever a Wal-Mart opens, stores in the surrounding area usually suffer a drop in revenue.

Wal-Mart buys merchandise in bulk and passes price savings onto its customers, a practice that puts a lot of pressure on small retailers.

Merchants in the Bel Air area, as well as those along the U.S. 1 corridor, have been competing for years with White Marsh Mall and Towson Town Center for customer dollars.

The arrival of a Wal-Mart in Constant Friendship would bring intense competition right to the heart of the county.

Wal-Mart is the nation's largest retailer. It moved into Maryland last year and has opened five stores -- in Prince Frederick, Hagerstown, Easton, Waldorf and Glen Burnie.

Additionally, the company has site-plan approvals in Westminster, Elkton, Salisbury, Bowie and the Bel Air-Aberdeen area.

The proposed Aberdeen store, which includes 90,000 square feet for expansion, would be located on U.S. 40 just north of Route 715, near the Frito-Lay plant under construction.

Bel Air merchants, already competing with two Baltimore County malls, now may have to include Wal-Mart as they make business decisions in the future.

Carol Deibel, director of planning and community development for the town of Bel Air, has reason to be concerned about a Wal-Mart locating at Constant Friendship.

For nearly two years, she, along with members of the Community Development Commission, the Planning Commission and the Board of Town Commissioners, have been gathering demographic information for a market study of the town's central business district and the U.S. 1 corridor.

That study, a comprehensive profile of the Bel Air market area and an analysis of its retail potential, was released last month by Whitney, Bailey, Cox and Magnani, a Timonium-based consulting firm.

"Sure I'm concerned about Wal-Mart seeking the Constant Friendship location," she said, citing the proximity of that site to the town of Bel Air.

"I can only hope they settle on the Aberdeen site. Right now, my main concern is what lies ahead for Bel Air," she said.

Warren Hartenstine, a Harford County businessman and a member of the Governor's Commission on Economic `/ Development, also had reservations about the site.

"From an economic standpoint, I think it's a plus to have Wal-Mart locate in the county but I don't think the Constant Friendship location works as a retail venture," Mr. Hartenstine said.

"The major problem . . . is accessibility. The land owners would be responsible for major road construction. The site is really more conducive to development as an industrial park."

George Harrison, chairman of the community development commission, also feels the Aberdeen site is more suitable for Wal-Mart, and that locating there would do the least harm to Bel Air's economic viability.

"I'm in favor of a Wal-Mart store in the county, but I also see a need to further develop Bel Air," he said.

And, if the expected arrival of Wal-Mart isn't enough to make area merchants shudder, consider what the retail giant has done in Riverdale, Ga.

Wal-Mart has come up with the ultimate fix for the addicted aisle cruiser: a Wal-Mart that never closes. Riverdale now boasts the only all-night Wal-Mart in America.

According to Jane Arend, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart corporate offices in Bentonville, Ark., there are no plans to go nationwide with the 24-hour operation.

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