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Retail border wars in the Sault.

The all-too-familiar scenario of what happens when a Wal-Mart development comes to town is playing itself out in Sault Ste. Marie.

A two-year planning battle over whether the city can accommodate new retail and how it should be laid out comes to a climax at an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing next month.

And the case will likely set a benchmark for what happens with similar proposals in other Ontario communities.

It is the city's first brush with a big box power-shopping centre. But the development proposed by First Professional Management Inc. is a shadow of its former self, downsized twice from a sprawling 300,000-square-foot centre with a department store, anchor in the city's north end to a 106,500-square-foot standalone Wal-Mart.

The howls of protest that accompanied the development, from a coalition of downtown merchants association, a commercial real estate holdings company, a private retail developer and a resident, have stalled the project.

The board has set aside eight weeks for the hearing which begins Sept. 11.

"I think the battle that is going on in Sault Ste. Marie is happening all over," says the city's planning director Don McConnell. "We shouldn't think we're unique."

With similar retail developments on hold in Guelph and Sudbury, the OMB has rejuggled its logjam, of cases to hear the Sault case first.

"Assuming that the hearing goes from mid-September to mid-November, there are a number of other communities waiting to see what happens here," says McConnell.

"I think the board is really going try and get a quick decision because there are so many other developments out there hanging on this and it may help set the precedent and the rules for how those other communities will proceed.

"We certainly have the board's attention, and we have the development industry's attention to a large extent."

Opponents have long argued that new retail development should be located in existing vacant and appropriately zoned land.

"The real issue is will it be a special exemption in the official plan, or will it be B-3 (general business), which we're not too happy about," says Bob Leistner of Algoma Central Properties, one of the appellants and the owners of the Station Mall. "It's not the concern about the zoning for a discount department store, as much as how it's zoned."

McConnell says there is "nothing close" in the city's retail space arsenal to accommodate development of this size. "We simply don't have it among commercial buildings in town."

A former Loeb building is less than hail the size of what is needed, with fewer than 200 parking spaces, while 700 spaces are needed for the Wal-Mart development.

"It simply doesn't fit," McConnell says.

McConnell says the city is adhering to a moderate 30-year practice of phasing in retail development in stages by adding 100,000 square feet of new retail space every five years, as was done with the city's major shopping malls.

"When you add that kind of space, which is about 10 per cent of our total spade to the community, there's a hit amongst the retailers in existing area before they sort themselves out. We're not overly concerned about any particular retailer, what we are concerned about is that existing commercial areas remain vibrant."

"Nobody wants to have a downtown or other commercial area that really goes into a slump, and our downtown actually does quite well as compared to our neighbors'," McConnell says.

Should First Professional receive a favourable decision from the board, construction could conceivably start in the spring and the store would be open by the Christmas season next year.

With the city wanting to promote itself as a regional draw and tourist centre, city councillor Peter Vaudry says the Sault is "suffering" without amenities like big box shopping enjoyed by other communities.

"When you have a Wal-Mart in Dryden and you don't have one in Sault Ste. Marie, you really have to wonder what's going on?" Vaudry says.

He says most of the objectors are representing "special interest" groups who are merely protecting their assets. "It's not about zoning, it's about profits, money, and far as I see they just don't want the competition here."

Offering greater choices for local consumers, Vaudry says, might stem the tide of Sault residents travelling three hours to Sudbury to indulge in weekend shopping, trips.

Though disappointed in First Professional's smaller concept, Vaudry believes power-shopping amenities enhance the Sault's image, which is a marketing tool to encourage health-care professionals to set up practice in the city.

"If we're looking at attracting doctors to Sault Ste. Marie and training medical recruits if we don't have the amenities that they have in Sudbury, how can we compete?"
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Wal-Mart development
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Previous Article:HOW TO consider technology in developments.
Next Article:Big Box opposition not as fierce in northwest.

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