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Wal-Mart to take mall's place

For a dozen years, the Bayonet Point Mall has sat empty, deteriorating as one high-flying idea after another fizzled.

That's about to change.

Wal-Mart plans to bulldoze the mall and build a supercenter on the site _ a move that will bring 500 new jobs and an estimated $263,000 in tax revenues to Pasco County.

Allen Crumbley, who represents the property owner in the sale, confirmed Wal-Mart's plans Thursday.

The purchase of the site, which is on U.S. 19 just north of State Road 52, is expected to be completed in the next several months, he said. The store should open in early 2004.

This would be the fifth Wal-Mart supercenter open or planned for Pasco County, and it would put four supercenters within the 20 miles on U.S. 19 that stretch from Spring Hill to Holiday.

Landing the world's largest retailer marks a climactic chapter for the 33-acre property where the enclosed mall opened in 1985 and struggled to stay alive until it finally shut down in 1990. As it sat vacant, various interests envisioned using it as an ice skating rink, a wrestling arena, government center and medical offices.

"What a coup!" said Mike Wells, the county's property appraiser, when told about the Wal-Mart deal.

As a county commissioner in the mid 1990s, Wells wanted to put government offices at the site.

Later, as a Realtor, he sold the property to one of its many owners.

"The people I know are going to welcome the prospect of having a super Wal-Mart in their neighborhood," Wells said.

"It's almost like going to Disney World to some people."

The prospect of a Wal-Mart raises serious questions about traffic control. The Wal-Mart supercenter that opened in Port Richey in March 2001 has created a traffic logjam and headaches for the Port Richey police.

Officials from Wal-Mart and the property owner, the Wilder Corp., did not return calls seeking comment. Crumbley declined to disclose the purchase price.

The land is appraised by the county at $1.85-million. The current owners pay $37,659 in property taxes, according to Wells.

The challenge of selling the site has been "the mere size of it," said Crumbley, co-owner of Prudential Tropical Realty. "Wal-Mart supercenter is one of the few businesses that can justify a site that size. But Hudson is an area that sorely needs something."

The mall was first conceived in the 1970s as a $30-million project about the size of Gulf View Square, which was being built only a few miles south on U.S. 19. Gulf View opened in 1980; and plans for the Bayonet Point mall had shrunk to its current size, about 200,000 square feet. Plans for a movie or dinner theater were tossed around in the late 1980s; and in 1990, the Resolution Trust Corp. foreclosed on the property.

In 1992, a unit of General Electric bought the property for $500,000, and sold it two years later to Sam and Laurice Hachem, who previously owned the nearby USA Flea Market. In 1996, Wilder Corp., a Clearwater-based real estate investment firm, bought the property.

In 1998, another group of investors proposed turning the mall into a medical plaza for up to 70 doctors. That effort fell apart as questions about some of the investors' criminal records came to light.

For Wal-Mart, which has annual sales of $218-billion, the supercenters have been the primary vehicle for growth in recent years. The stores, which typically span 200,000 square feet _ the size of four football fields _ include full grocery stores and general discount merchandise.

Wal-Mart opened supercenters in Port Richey and New Port Richey in 2001 and in Zephyrhills earlier this year. Early next year, another supercenter will open in Spring Hill. All of those stores replaced smaller stores nearby. Pasco County planners said last month that Wal-Mart plans to build a store in Holiday at the corner of U.S. 19 and Gulf Trace Boulevard.

Crumbley said that he also is working with Wal-Mart to bring two of its standalone groceries, called Neighborhood Markets, to Pasco.

"Wal-Mart believes, and rightfully so, that Tampa Bay and Pasco are growth areas," said Patrick Berman, a retail broker with Cushman & Wakefield. "They expect with the Suncoast Parkway open to see a lot of residential growth and are positioning themselves to capture that growth.

"I believe their strategy is to strangle the markets and locate as many new stores as they can. If their own store sales suffer from it, they're still going to end up destroying people like Winn-Dixie. Kmart, (which is now in bankruptcy court and has a store next to Bayonet Point mall site) never had a chance to begin with."

Ray Watson, president of the Beacon Woods Civic Association, said that he was glad to have the new jobs in the area and the property bring more revenues to the tax rolls. But he's worried about the traffic the new Wal-Mart will bring. Already, many drivers use Beacon Woods' main two-lane road as a shortcut between State Road 52 and U.S. 19.

"It's going to be wall-to-wall Wal-Mart," Watson said. "The conditions that come as a result of having a center like that are almost uncontrollable. Progress has got to come, but I don't know whether this is the right type of progress."

"This poor community is going to be inundated with traffic," he said. "It's going to be a nightmare."

In July 2001, the county proposed building a bridge that would connect the mall site to Beacon Woods Drive, Watson said. The civic association gathered 1,000 signatures opposing the bridge, and the effort failed.

County officials referred all calls about traffic to the state Department of Transportation, which did not return calls.