Walmart puts its best faces forward for public meeting

(Photo courtesy Wal-mart Stores, Inc.)

Roughly 50 people came to the Payne Park Auditorium Wednesday evening, Aug. 15, to talk with Walmart representatives about a proposed new “supercenter” at the old Ringling Shopping Center.

The “maestro” for the event was Michelle Belaire, a battle-hardened corporate PR woman from Miami who by turns welcomed, answered and deflected questions from the crowd. “We want to be good neighbors, and that’s why we’re here,” she said at the outset.

Walmart plans to scrape the site bare – razing the city’s first shopping center anchored by its first Publix – and build a 98,000-square-foot general retail and grocery store.

“We are not asking for any variances or zoning changes,” said Belaire. “This parcel is appropriately zoned ‘commercial,’ and we need only administrative approval of the site plan. Construction will take about one year from the ground up.“

She said the doors should open in 2014.

While a public hearing is required before the city planning board, approval should be a pro forma decision if the company’s planners follow the city’s rules.

There were questions about how the store would drive out local businesses, and about Walmart’s labor practices and its large inventory of made-in-China goods. Belaire countered with the promise of 250 to 300 new full- and part-time jobs, along with 400 construction jobs to put up the building.

“We spend $7 billion in Florida annually, and our Florida vendors employ 121,000 people,” she said. “And last year we gave $48 million to charitable groups in Florida.”

The whole gang

Belaire was backed up by five local Walmart executives, two engineers, one lawyer and one architect. They all stood through the entire event, including the architect with a bum knee, Michael Blinn.

Blinn said he had drawn the blueprints for 150 Walmart stores in Florida and Georgia from his office in Atlanta. The Ringling store will be different from his usual big-box design, he said.

“This store is smaller, and shortened. It is only 27 feet tall,” he said. “There is an all-glass entry with a canopy at a pedestrian scale. We’ve added windows and awnings, instead of having this big, huge box around you.”

He said he was working with students at the Ringling College of Art and Design to come up with a tile design or painting at the pedestrian entrance. Later, one neighbor suggested he take a look at the painted tile mural at the old Publix, with an eye to saving it and moving it to the new Walmart building.

Blinn’s design reorients the building to face Ringling Boulevard to the north, across a large parking lot. The old Publix center faced east. He promised “nice, lush landscaping to go with this.”

The Sarasota News Leader broke the story of the Ringling Boulevard Walmart in late June. Since then, the building site has been moved north about 70 feet to provide an additional buffer for the homes to the south. Publix was about 84 feet away from them; Walmart will now be about 153 feet from them.

However, the company is still struggling with providing safe access across the southern edge of the property for neighbors wanting to get to Payne Park. Belaire neatly deflected a question about that. “Under our site plan, you’d cut through the back of the house [a parking lot south of the building],” she said. “But a cut-through may not be appropriate. We’re working on this, internally and with city staff.”

Changes ahead?

This was a voluntary meeting for the Walmart group. No city ordinance required it. Not only did the company send a bevy of senior staff, but it sent them with architectural drawings and elevations to provide an idea of the company’s current thinking.

One thought is – no competition allowed. Unlike the old center with multiple tenants, the new site will have a single store. A Walmart.

Will traffic be a problem? Because the site is already zoned for commercial use, Walmart does not have to conduct a traffic study. The city will do that. “This is a redevelopment, so it fits in the existing infrastructure,” said Belaire.

She called that existing condition “a dark, blighted abandoned center.” And that means fewer customers are going to visit the strip mall across the street.

Jeff Handler is a Sarasota native who owns a couple of the spots across Ringling Boulevard. “Now we have an obsolete shopping center,” he said. “A new store that will revitalize our community is such an asset. What is coming to this shopping center now? Nothing.”

The site is under contract to Walmart. The owners are a pair of families in California who own many similar strip malls across the nation. When he was trying to develop a site plan for School Avenue, developer Ron Burks attempted several times to purchase the shopping center but was rebuffed. Once Publix moved out, Walmart made an offer the owners couldn’t refuse.

Architect Blinn touched on that. After designing those 150 Walmarts, he has an eye on the overall corporate strategy. “It’s all about ROI [return on investment],” he said.


Who: The Walmart Corp.

What: A new “superstore.”

When: Opening in early 2014 and then open 24/7/365.

Where: Charles Ringling Boulevard and Lime Avenue, the site of the former Publix Shopping Center.

Why: Moving to the urban center instead of staying on the suburban fringe.

How: Vehicular traffic will get there from Lime Avenue, or off Ringling Boulevard or via Shopping Way from the stoplight at School Avenue.