TARPON SPRINGS — Walmart fractured this small town five years ago when it attempted to build a supercenter on the edges of the Anclote River. There was an all-night City Commission meeting, protests and legal wrangling.
Although Walmart still owns the 74-acre plot, its attempt to build a 200,000-square-foot store stalled. Its building permit and its development agreement with the city have expired.
But as the candidates for mayor and two commission seats make their rounds through Tarpon Springs in preparation for the March 9 election, they are asked the same question time and time again: What's their stance on Walmart?
That question was asked both Monday and Tuesday night at forums held by the Greater Tarpon Springs Democratic Club and the Chamber of Commerce.
David Archie and Matt King are both running for mayor. They have opposing positions.
Archie was on the commission in 2005 and voted to allow Walmart to build. In 2008, King was a member of the city's Board of Adjustment and voted against Walmart's attempt to make changes to its site plan without having to go through a more extensive review process.
"Walmart met all the standards and I'll do the same thing as I did last time," Archie said. "It's a viable industry in the U.S. I treated Walmart as I would any other entity. It could open us up for lawsuits if we subjectively say who we like and who we don't."
King doesn't think "Walmart is the type of business we want to see in our city." King said he wants the city to attract higher-paying jobs and jobs that are in the "green" industry. A way to do that is to offer tax abatements to businesses and a revitalization effort, he said.
Jeff Larsen faces Joe Muzio for commission Seat 3. Larsen, chairman of the Planning and Zoning Board, said he voted against Walmart for legal reasons when the issue came before the board. Larsen said Walmart did not have a valid concurrency certificate.
Larsen's wife, Dory, was a leader of the Walmart opposition and his name ended up on a lawsuit that was filed against the city. Larsen said that his name was added without his permission and that it was later removed. Walmart pushed to have Larsen recuse himself from the Planning and Zoning board's vote. He refused to do so.
"I'm not afraid to stand up to Walmart," Larsen said Monday night.
But Muzio said it's simply about a property owner's rights, noting that Walmart's plan did not encroach on the city's wetlands, unlike a proposed Lowe's or a Sweetbay shopping center that recently opened in the city. Muzio said no one said a "peep" about the other stores.
"Let's take the applicant's name out of it," Muzio said. "We are talking about the rights of property owners. We have to protect their rights just like you would want me to protect your property rights."
Current Commissioner Chris Alahouzos is trying to retain Seat 4. He said he has to be careful answering Walmart questions because the matter still could come back before the board. Alahouzos pointed to a recently passed ordinance that limits where big box stores can be located in Tarpon Springs.
"The environment is very important to us," Alahouzos said. "But we still have to ask how do we attract businesses to Tarpon Springs."
His challenger, Beverly Kurpinski, said that everywhere she goes, she gets a different response from residents about Walmart. But she said the issue is on their minds.
Kurpinski said she hasn't had any dealings with the issue but when a new commission is seated, "it's going to be a whole new ball game."
"Do I want to protect the environment? I certainly do," Kurpinski said. "But I don't want to take away property rights either. We could work with (Walmart). We could work very well with Walmart."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.