Why Wal-Mart keeps failing in Montgomery County


(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

In Germantown, about halfway up Interstate 270 from the Capital Beltway to Frederick, is a Wal-Mart Supercenter, complete with a garden center, eyeglass counter, auto repair shop and a pharmacy. There’s even a McDonalds.

It is the only Wal-Mart in Montgomery County. And for now that is unlikely to change.

You can’t say the world’s largest retailer hasn’t tried. Almost three years ago, Wal-Mart agreed to open an 80,000-square-foot store in the Pike Center shopping plaza near the busy intersection of Rockville Pike and Twinbrook Parkway.

The developer, JBG Rosenfeld, then watched as residents began petitioning against the store and the county council considered a string of measures aimed at big box stores.

Enough was enough. The developer shelved its plans and opted to sell the property for $54 million to Weingarten Realty of Houston, which quickly announced it had no plans to build a Wal-Mart there.

A larger Wal-Mart was slated to open last year in Aspen Hill as part of a mixed-use project by Lee Development Group. But similarly to the Rockville Pike experience, protests began and the approval process dragged on and Lee, needing the property re-zoned, may have decided the value of a Wal-Mart lease wasn’t worth the struggle it would likely face getting approvals. Down went another plan.

Lee Development Group president Bruce Lee said in a statement that Wal-Mart had decided to move out but the project would continue.

“We are confident that this is a great retail location, ultimately offering much-needed shopping options to the under-served Aspen Hill community,” he said.

Montgomery County’s opposition to Wal-Mart is not unique. As the chain saturated small towns, rural areas and outer suburbs, it began focusing on cities and more urban suburbs. It faced protests in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and elsewhere, but it managed to open stores in all those places.

Wal-Mart isn’t equipped to buy land in an inner suburb or city and go through the rezoning process on its own like it might in a small town. It needs a developer to do that. And the experience in Montgomery County shows that if Wal-Mart wants to redouble its efforts in the county it’s going to have to do so with development partners who are up for a protracted fight.

Look at Foulger Pratt, the company that opened one of the first  Wal-Mart stores in D.C., on Georgia Avenue. Though that store didn’t require re-zoning, the executive in charge of the project endured protests in front of his house at night once the plans became public. Union leaders, activists and elected officials berated the project publicly for months.

Building a Wal-Mart might require the same concrete and mortar as any other store, but in Montgomery County it also requires an extra dose of moxie. As Lee told the Post: “Once you hear the name Wal-Mart, there’s always politics around it.”

Update: This post has been updated to include comments from Bruce Lee explaining Wal-Mart’s withdrawal.

Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz

 

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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