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Kenwood largely welcomes 'world's largest bungalow' — Walmart

When word that a blighted parcel will be developed starts to circulate in a neighborhood, residents typically welcome the news.

But if the new business is a Walmart, that's sometimes not the case. Repeatedly around the country, opponents have argued that the chain's stores are eyesores that suck the life out of nearby businesses and clog the streets with traffic.

Back in 1998, residents in Lakewood Estates and Pinellas Point in St. Petersburg reacted with dismay when Bethel Community Baptist Church announced plans to sell 24 acres of woods at 54th Avenue S and 31st Street to Walmart for a superstore. The company eventually withdrew.

In recent years, angry residents in Tarpon Springs succeeded in blocking Walmart from a riverfront site. But city officials and residents are not opposed to a new store going into the former Kmart at 41232 U.S. 19 at Tarpon Avenue. It will open in 2013.

Walmart got a different reception, however, for the new 107,000-square-foot supercenter that is set to open next week at the former site of Montgomery Ward at 34th Street N between First and Second avenues.

That's because Walmart representatives and residents of the Historic Kenwood neighborhood met to talk about the project before construction started.

Folks in the neighborhood had three main concerns. They feared that the facade of the big store would clash with the bungalow architecture that is prevalent in the nearby neighborhoods. They also feared that the store would squeeze out mom-and-pop stores in the area and clog neighboring streets.

In each case, Walmart made adjustments to appease residents' concerns. And those adjustments have led many residents to embrace the new store.

Jim Longstreth, a longtime community activist in the area, helped facilitate the first meeting of Historic Kenwood residents and Walmart officials in early 2010.

"At times it was contentious, but we're always happy to see a thriving business replace a vacant lot," said Longstreth. "We're also happy to see the world's largest bungalow" coming to the neighborhood.

"They came to us and asked us for input on the design of the building," said Bill Heyen, president of the Historic Kenwood neighborhood association. "We asked them to make some changes to the facade, in keeping with the Craftsman bungalows."

According to Heyen, Walmart officials also got state transportation officials "to get a turn lane put in" to ease residents' concerns about additional traffic.

"Everybody's been watching the progress and all the beautiful landscaping that's going in," he said.

But not everyone is happy about the store's new arrival.

"There are a group of local merchants who don't like the idea of a chain or big box store," said Kurt Donley, president of the Grand Central Business District Association. But Donley says the positives outweigh the concerns some merchants may have.

The Grand Central District Association is just west of downtown between 16th and 31st streets in the Central Avenue corridor. That corridor was part of the "Central Avenue Tomorrow Plan" that was adopted by the city in 1999.

In recent years, the district has seen an influx of new businesses, mainly smaller niche shops and stores. But many agree that one of the key elements of a successful neighborhood is a grocery store close by. Walmart will provide that.

As far as local merchants losing customers to Walmart, Donley adds: "Most of what is offered in the area shops are not offered in Walmart. The shops in the district include art galleries, specialty clothing, restaurants and bars … they won't be competing with Walmart."

Heyen agrees. "There are concerns, as in any community, that Walmart would push out local businesses." But he takes a broader view of the development of the property. "It was a building that was underutilized and was not as attractive as this (new) building."

"We don't have a grocery store near Grand Central or Historic Kenwood," he said. "That's one of the few things missing in our neighborhood."

Walmart officials are also pleased with the new store.

It "is going to be reflective of the people that live in the community," said store manager Kody Daley. "We've done a good job of hiring talented people from the community."

The store's grand opening begins at 7:30 a.m. July 20. The festivities will include Gibbs High School's steel drum band and performances by students from the Royal Theater, said Steve Marshall of OMJ Consulting and Planning, which is coordinating the event.

Walmart has three other stores in the area. One is just 2 1/2 miles away on 34th Street S. Another is 5 1/2 miles northwest on Tyrone Boulevard, and the third is 6 1/2 miles north on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park.

Is there room for a fourth store? Daley, who has worked at other Walmarts in the area, says marketing studies show the new store will draw plenty of customers.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8874.

BY THE NUMBERS

107,000 square feet

300

employees

3,500

applications

Kenwood largely welcomes 'world's largest bungalow' — Walmart 07/09/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 6:58pm]

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