City braces for Wal-Mart departure
Rockland — Who will occupy the Rockland Wal-Mart store when it closes remains unknown, but other communities faced with the same situation have seen Marden's and Ocean State Job Lot move to town.
Officials from Marden's said they have no plans to move to Rockland. Ocean State Job Lot did not return a call for comment.
Wal-Mart is moving to a new 150,000-square-foot superstore being built in Thomaston. Construction is under way, and the store is expected to open this fall.
As Wal-Mart relocates its store from one town to the next, it is taking with it a personal property tax assessment of $1.7 million, which means Rockland will lose $43,833 in taxes. Personal property taxes are for items such as cash registers and shelving. Wal-Mart's 2013 taxes for the Rockland building is $165,388, which will continue to be paid, according to the Rockland assessor's office.
"All those shelves, cash registers and the like are significant to the city’s tax rolls," said Ellsworth City Manager Michelle Beal. "The building becomes devalued," she said.
Other Maine communities, such as Ellsworth, Sanford and Scarborough have been through Wal-Mart closings. In some cases, a store was being closed to make way for a bigger superstore.
In all three instances, the transition was successful, according to officials in those communities.
In Ellsworth and Scarborough, the new owners were Maine discount store Marden's Surplus & Supply, which has 14 stores and three warehouses in the state.
In Sanford, the new owner is Ocean State Job Lot of Rhode Island, which has six stores in Maine. Ocean State also has a store in Belfast.
Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz said no firm date has been set for the closing of the Rockland store.
“The old store will close, when the new one opens,” Wertz said Feb. 20. “Probably some time in the fall,” he added.
Wertz said the current employees at the Rockland store will be offered jobs at the new store in Thomaston. Now, there are between 200 to 250 associates and another 90 will be offered positions in Thomaston, bringing the total up to about 300 at the new store, he said.
“If we are the owner of the store — and in this case, we are — we assume responsibility for finding a new tenant,” he said. “Our real estate department is already talking to prospects, although we don’t know who they are talking to,” Wertz added.
"In some communities, we have made a store available as a community center," Wertz said.
Craig Burgess, general manager of Marden’s Surplus & Salvage, said Feb. 20, “We have no definite plans for additional stores right now in Maine.”
A spokesperson for T.J. Maxx in Framingham, Mass., said the company policy is not to discuss any potential lease until one is signed. Then it becomes public information, she said.
“We look at a lot of potential properties,” she said, but would not say whether Rockland was one of them.
T.J. Maxx already has a department store in the Harbor Plaza in Rockland.
Other Maine communities' experience
Jamie Cole, code enforcement officer in Sanford, said the closing three years ago of the old Wal-Mart store had no effect on surrounding businesses.
“It was a smooth transition as they moved from the old Wal-Mart to a Super Wal-Mart,” he said.
Ocean City Job Lot of Rhode Island, another discount department store, bought the old Wal-Mart, and both have co-existed, he added.
Cole said he knows it’s the policy of Wal-Mart not to hang onto a store once the company puts it on the market.
“They want to get rid of it as fast as they can,” he said.
He does not believe the idea of selling a Wal-Mart as a community center — one of the possibilities put forth by Wertz — is practicable.
“Wal-Mart stores are big, and that would be a lot of space for a nonprofit to heat,” he said. Also, a Wal-Mart that is sold as a nonprofit would generate no tax revenue, he added.
Beal, Ellsworth's city manager, said the city took charge of the overall changes, including the building of new roads, when Wal-Mart built its superstore and moved out of its older store. The city paid for the changes up front and then sought reimbursements from the individual stores as they moved in.
"We could do that because all the changes took place within the city limits," she said, acknowledging that the Rockland situation is different with a store closing in one community and re-opening in another.
"Rockland will not have that kind of control, because the change of venue for Wal-Mart will occur in two towns," Beal said.
Former Rockland City Manager Thomas Hall has the perspective of having dealt with Wal-Mart in two communities, Rockland and his new community, Scarborough, where he is town manager.
Hall took a job in Scarborough in 2009, just in time for the building of a new Wal-Mart Superstore on Payne Road, which he called a "retail mecca."
Marden's bought the old Wal-Mart store, and Hall had the experience of working with former Marden's CEO Paul LePage, now Maine's governor, at the time the permits were signed.
"He sat in the room next to my office for four hours, and he wouldn't leave until all the permits were signed," Hall said.
When Wal-Mart first came to Rockland, a lot of the Main Street merchants were concerned that they would be driven out of business, Hall said.
"Instead, Rockland businesses had to adapt and find their niche. Today, you can look at the successes on Main Street," Hall said.
"Wal-Mart is one of the only major retailers still expanding," he said. "They paid a pretty price to come in here," he said of the superstore in Scarborough.
"The competition is good for the consumer," he said.
"I know Wal-Mart is selective about who they sell to," Hall said. "They do have standards."
He said the Rockland property is hemmed in by wetlands.
Code Officer John Root, said, however, that the land would be no wetter than it was 20 years ago when all the permits were issued. Wetlands might be a factor if a company wanted to expand on site, he added.
Community values in the neighborhood
A few months ago an advisory committee was formed in Rockland concerned abut the growth and changes of Camden Street, also Route 1, that goes to the Rockport town line. The group was headed by Jane LaFleur, executive director of Friends of Midcoast Maine in Camden.
Calling themselves the Rockland Economic Development Advisory Committee, members are looking at zoning along Camden Street in Rockland and Commercial Street in Rockport in light of the changes at Wal-Mart.
The group recently advertised for requests for proposal from planners and received several responses, said LaFleur, who is advising the new panel, headed by Joanne Billington.
"Rockport just joined us and contributed $5,000," LaFleur said.
The group is looking at strip development along Camden Street and Commercial Street to decide what kind of community they want. The area extends from Maverick Street by McDonald's to the Rockport town line and beyond, and encompasses Wal-Mart.
Planners are looking at walking paths, and roundabouts for vehicle turning at intersections to make the strip more pedestrian friendly, said LaFleur.
Of concern to the group is the vacant former Bonanza restaurant on the lot in front of Wal-Mart. The property is owned by W/S Rockland Properties L.P. of Chestnut Hill, Mass.
A Delaware corporation, W/S Rockland Properties was registered as a foreign corporation with the Maine Secretary of State's corporations division until 2012, when their status as a corporation was revoked in Maine.
According to the Rockland tax assessor, W/S Properties is valued at $752,500 and has a tax bill of $14,614 for 2013. There is no personal property tax because the building is empty.
W\S Development, the real estate arm of W/S Properties, did not return phone calls.
Economic Development letter
Rockland Community Development Director John Holden has written a letter to 45 business owners and residents who are abutters to the Camden Street project.
In his letter, Holden relates the efforts to craft a new vision for Camden Street from Maverick Street north to Rockport.
The purpose of the project is to seek community input to help guide efforts to improve the community perception and beautify the area, Holden said.
"Camden Street is a gateway into our downtown and serves, on its own, as a key place of commerce and an arterial into the corridor," Holden said.
"The committee is seeking out four properties and property owners along Camden Street who might like to participate in those design studies over the next few months," Holden wrote in the letter.
Funding limits the consultant to work with four properties, Holden wrote.
The consultant will work with selected property owners and the committee and design two alternative conceptual site plans for the property that coincide with design plans along the public corridor, he wrote.
Holden said the committee will have several open and public workshops to work with the property owners who are selected.
McDonald's Real Estate Co. and Wal-Mart, as abutters of the neighborhood, received copies of the letter inviting them to participate, Holden said.
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.