Thursday, June 9, 2005

Editorial: No vacancy

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (June 9, 2005): The Scarborough Planning Board’s concern over what happens to the present Wal-Mart building is well-placed, especially now that the board has approved a new, 24-hour super Wal-Mart that will be built across the street.

Wal-Mart’s operation in Maine started relatively small, with a 114,000-square-foot store on Payne Road in 1992

Since then, the company has opened 11 department stores, 11 Supercenters and three Sam’s Clubs around the state, in locations from Biddeford to Presque Isle.

Wal-Mart apparently has even bigger plans for Maine, with a regional distribution center in Lewiston, a 24-hour Supercenter proposed in Scarborough and a similar one not five miles away in Westbrook, all in the works.

Earlier this year, the company vacated a 93,000-square-foot building on 17 acres in Waterville, to head to a new 207,000-square-foot Supercenter nearby.

Now that’s happening in Scarborough, too. But what is to come of the existing building? Could a company, which as of January had 325 vacant buildings nationwide totaling 25 million square feet, leave this one vacant for a long time?

If it did, that would leave a large black mark right in the middle of prime retail territory. That’s what residents, businesses and town officials are worried about, and what the Planning Board has moved to control.

The board has that option only because the two store locations are so close together that Wal-Mart itself needs to run the road to the new store across the existing store’s parking lot.

So the board has cleverly applied the rules about approving projects, granting approval for the road with conditions that would allow them effectively to close a portion of it if they don’t like what’s going on at the old store – even if that is nothing.

That gives Wal-Mart a real incentive to do something with the store, and fast. In fact, the company says it is close to a deal already, and may have something set up within the next 90 days, though the new store will take months to build.

It’s true that the location, right on Payne Road, in what has become the retail destination area around the Maine Mall, is profitable and likely desirable. And all the people heading to Wal-Mart will pretty much have to drive right by the old one. That’s quite a carrot for developers, though the expense of converting or refitting such a large building might make them look just a little ways down Payne Road to some of the vacant land.

The Planning Board’s efforts give Scarborough a stick to go with the carrot.

Covering the city

Readers will notice this week that we have added two special contributors who will help us improve our coverage of South Portland, without losing our focus on Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth.

Alan D. Johnson is a former publicist and reporter, most recently contributing to his previous community’s newspaper in Florida, and has covered a wide range of topics.

Leora Zucker, a former member of the Israeli Defence Forces, is a student at Southern Maine Community College, where she is involved with the campus newspaper, the Beacon. Both live in South Portland.

We welcome them to our family of writers, and look forward to working with both of them.

Jeff Inglis, editor