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Do We Want a Neighborhood Walmart Grocery in Downtown Oklahoma City?

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(Urban Walmart in Washington, D.C., courtesy of the Urban Land Institute)

I am not a fan of Walmart. I am not a fan of the wages they pay their employees. I am not a fan of how the company has hurt small town retailers over the years. I am not a fan of how the company squeezes every ounce of blood from vendors and manufacturers, and how it has accelerated the loss of jobs to cheaper, overseas labor. This is not opinion. All of these issues are well documented, and yet the retailer has enjoyed tremendous success.

I am in downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. It’s an amazing example of a vibrant, revitalized core where historic buildings have been restored and new, mixed-use development has risen up where historic architecture no longer existed or was deemed worthy of saving.

Bentonville focused on unique retailers. Daniel Hintz, who oversaw the downtown Bentonville association for several years and is now a consultant, was involved in the very formation of this new downtown Bentonville.

He noted how downtowns across the country held their value better than suburbs during the 2009 Great Recession. And now it is home to a 21c Museum Hotel, as I noted in my last post about the latest #ULIOKtravels trip (Urban Land Institute Oklahoma), but also a very urban Neighborhood Walmart.

Part of the key is what we’ve seen in Oklahoma City. Urban cores are popular with young professionals, and tempting retiring Baby Boomers to move from suburbia to downtown.

“You have a massive, massive economy developing,” Hintz said. “But most downtowns are 30 years behind the trend.”

Walmart clearly sees that trend. Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., noted the retailer isn’t just building these urban stores in its hometown, but across the country.

It’s not a sudden turn of civic leadership for the retailing giant. Note the recent controversy when Walmart reneged on promises to build stores in economically distressed, urban food deserts in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

But in more vibrant urban areas, the retailer is opening stores where parking is either across the alleyway or street in a garage, or in parking under the store. I lucked out with McMahon when it comes to downtown Walmarts - this is an area he is well versed on and has written about for the national Urban Land Institute. Read more of his thoughts here.

Yesterday I asked on Twitter whether readers, if they were a developer, would embrace interest by Walmart to open a store in downtown Oklahoma City, or whether they would insist on waiting for something local, something better like an Uptown Market or Crest, even if those retailers were not showing any immediate interest in such an expansion. The results were very mixed. Some readers believe a downtown Walmart is exactly what is needed, while others can't get over their hatred for Walmart business practices to accept that this is a choice we should settle for as our downtown continues to grow.

Walmart is definitely pursuing urban locations free of the massive surface parking lots that are typical of such stores in suburban areas. McMahon suggests Walmart is shifting is strategy. The suburban market is saturated and overbuilt. The only opportunity left, he says, is to expand into downtowns that have growing affluent communities long lacking modern grocery conveniences.

So let’s look at what a downtown Neighborhood Walmart can look like with a tour of the store in downtown Bentonville. Note, the sort of site plan and architecture with this new development has a lot of similarities to the mixed-use development being done in east Bricktown and around the 21c Museum Hotel along Film Row.

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Steve Lackmeyer

Steve Lackmeyer is a reporter, columnist and author who started his career at The Oklahoman in 1990. Since then, he has won numerous awards for his coverage, which included the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, the city's... Read more ›

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