Editor's note: Who wins with Walmart? The answer depends on whom you ask. This is the third in a four-part print series on the impact of Walmart stores on suburban central Ohio communities.
Westerville's businesses agree on one thing: Walmart's move into the community will have an effect on what they do.
What they don't know is what that effect will be.
"There's an overall concern. You don't take the largest retailer in the world and plop them a mile down the street and not think it's going to affect your business a little," said Westerville Uptown Merchants Association president Kriss Rogers, owner of Outside Envy.
Westerville City Council approved an application July 5 by The Hadler Cos. to renovate its Westerville Square shopping center at the northeast corner of South State Street and Schrock Road to include a 108,000-square-foot Walmart at the center's core.
An attempt by a group of residents to fight council's decision by placing a referendum before voters failed in August when the Franklin and Delaware county boards of elections declared that they had not gathered enough valid signatures to do so.
Becky Chaney, a resident helping to head the group, said a lawyer was reviewing petitions to make sure signatures were not disqualified unjustly; however, Franklin County Board of Elections spokesman Ben Piscitelli has said no avenue exists for an appeal of the boards' decision.
Residents opposed to the development of a Walmart in Westerville Square have cited concerns over traffic, crime and the potential impact a 24-hour store could have on neighboring homes and local businesses.
While both Rogers and Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce president Janet Tressler-Davis said their organizations have closely followed the Westerville Square case through the city planning process, neither the WUMA nor the chamber has taken an official position on the issue.
Tressler-Davis said she's heard mixed reactions from local business owners.
"There's a camp that's concerned with the stigma that comes with a Walmart — the environment that it might invite for shoppers. I've heard the other side of it, where it fills a vacant space, it brings in employees, it fills the tax base, it upgrades the entire center," Tressler-Davis said. "It's been a lot of years that there's been some desire to get that Westerville Square remodeled, enhanced."
Walmart as the 'hero'
The Hadler Cos. president George Hadler said an anchor tenant like Walmart would bring new life to the old center by attracting shoppers and new businesses.
Hadler said he worked for five years trying to locate a long-term anchor tenant for the center, and Walmart was the only retailer willing to move in.
"I've said from day one, you should look at Walmart as heroes because we couldn't get anyone else to go in," he said. "I had more offers for flea markets and antique malls. They cannot afford to pay any rent and they don't really seem to last very long. É Certainly, Walmart would be better than these ancillary uses that will come and go."
Kitti Blevins, who owns John's Barber Shop in Westerville Square with her sister, Connie Sheehan, shares Hadler's view of Walmart as a hero.
Blevins said she has seen her business suffer as former anchor tenants, such as Lazarus, moved out of Westerville Square.
"We were a viable shop. We kept three people willfully employed, living well," Blevins said. "Once Lazarus went out, everything just kept dropping out."
The customers followed the businesses out of the center, she said.
"I've personally watched my income from the '80s until now literally drop in half. My husband says I cut hair for a hobby now," Blevins said. "There's no reason to come over to this shopping center any more. It's not a viable place. It's turned into a ghost town. No one wants to go into a vacant shopping center."
Blevins said she would have been happy to see any retailer move in to anchor Westerville Square. She said she is not concerned that Walmart could be her new neighbor.
"I would have taken any store," she said. "I like Walmart. I'm an equal-opportunity shopper: I'll go anywhere."
Potential business impact
Opponents of the Westerville Square Walmart have said they believe the store will draw customers away from Westerville's smaller retailers, such as Roush Hardware and Uptown's many shops.
Roush Hardware floor manager Todd Westerveldt said the store's employees are a little hesitant about having a Walmart move in across State Street, but overall, he said, they do not believe Walmart would take away their customers.
"There's some concern not knowing exactly how it's going to play out," he said. "We're not panicking, no."
Westerveldt said Roush offers many hard-to-find items and customer service beyond what shoppers would find at Walmart. The company has been around for 60 years and has not taken a hit in business from the openings of Home Depot stores to the north and west and from the Lowe's at Polaris, he said.
"I don't know that we feel we're in quite the same slice of the market as a Walmart is," he said. "We've seen a number of competitors come and go. We're still here. We like to think we have something to offer that big-boxes don't."
Rogers said she, too, believes Westerville's small businesses offer what Walmart doesn't, and that insulates them from the retailer's impact.
"If somebody wants to buy something inexpensive for their yard, they can go to Walmart. That's fine with me. I sell good-quality, pretty good-priced garden art from Westerville and all over the world. You're not going to find that at Walmart," Rogers said. "If you think up and down State Street — the cigar store, Meza, my store, certainly not the antique stores, it's not going to hurt the restaurants. É Everybody that's up here does commodities that Walmart doesn't have; they have a niche."
Rogers said she expects local businesses would see an initial impact from Walmart, but long term, they'll survive.
"I think we'll feel a bump initially; then I think everything will settle down and the people who love and support Uptown Westerville will continue to love and support Uptown Westerville," she said. "I don't think it's going to be the end of the world."