With a stiff breeze and temperatures well below freezing, area residents took their opposition of a new Bel Air Wal Mart to the doorsteps of the Abingdon location on Saturday, February 2nd.
Some 125 people lined Constant Friendship Boulevard as cars sounded their horns in support of keeping Wal Mart at its current site. The potential move would bring a new Wal Mart to an already congested stretch of road at the intersection of Plumbtree and Emmorton Roads.
According to rally participants, traffic studies show an average of 17,000 - 18,000 cars per day currently pass under the traffic light at Plumbtree Road. A new Wal Mart could add as many as 10,000 cars daily to the area.
"We hope they have a threshold between cost and public opinion that they'll give up," says Steve Tobias, one of the rally organizers.
Concerned participants also say that Wal Mart officials won't answer their questions as to why they won't expand their current location. Participants say that the original plans for the Abingdon Wal Mart included 30,000 square feet for future expansion.
Wal Mart spokesman, Bill Wertz, stated they have letters and petitions showing strong support for the relocation of the Abingdon Wal Mart. If Wal Mart's claims are true, no public display in favor of a Bel Air Wal Mart was evident at the rally.
The legitimacy of that support could also be brought into question based on information provide by No Bel Air Wal Mart supporters. Wal Mart representatives submitted 1145 names to Harford County officials of which 1012 had signatures. However, 193 of those signatures were from outside the community. They also suggest that the names were collected at the Abingdon store’s entrance, and those who signed Wal Mart’s petition did not have the option of choosing against the move or expanding the current location.
Wertz mentioned that the new location would be larger, have a better layout, and would include a full size grocery department. No mention was made about additional new jobs which was one of the key points in several Wal Mart promotions which were distributed throughout the community.
"We're being responsive to our customers," says Wertz. "The best alternative is to build on an appropriately zoned site." The property where the Bel Air Wal Mart would be located is currently zoned for such development.
The Wal Mart spokesman also confirmed that a revised traffic study is being conducted as required by state and local governments. No time frame has been set as to when that study will be presented for reexamination.
While Wal Mart claims they have strong support for the move, local residents claim they have similar support against relocation.
Mr. Tobias explained in an email that of the 300 citizens that attended a County Council meeting, and the 900 that attended a community meeting at Patterson Mill Middle High School in reference to Wal Mart’s move, no area residence came in support of a Bel Air Wal Mart.
No Bel Air Wal Mart organizers state they have 2000 signatures against the move that were collected at rallies, community meetings, and through door-to-door visits.
Wal Mart's relocation is not just about a bigger store and traffic congestion. An abandoned big box store is also a major concern.
When asked about vacating the Abingdon Wal Mart, Mr. Wertz responded by saying, "We have a division that re-purposes old stores. They are very successful at finding new occupants."
According to Mr. Tobias, a 2007 vacant big box store list shows 246 empty former Wal Marts throughout the country. Residents don't want to see the Abingdon location added to that list. Mr. Wertz couldn't confirm if that number was correct.
"If Wal Mart moves, it could be years before the old store would have new tenant. Having a boarded up Wal Mart isn't good for the community." says Tobias. "Big box stores are on the decline, especially with Internet sales becoming a large part of our economy. I can't see how they are going to fill this store if you consider the Anne Arundel County Wal Mart which has been vacant since 2008. A larger store was built one mile away."
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