[Note: this story has been modified since its original posting to correct errors.]
After nearly a year of fiery debate, the Columbia City Council will likely decide tonight whether Wal-Mart can build the city’s second Supercenter on 23 acres of zoned residential property.
“The rezoning request, with (Wal-Mart’s) plan, is much better,” said Third Ward Councilman Bob Hutton. Rezoning the 23 acres would also entail acquiring and then demolishing five homes.
At the same meeting, the council will also consider whether to accept a $3,000 donation from the Wal-Mart Foundation to the Columbia Police Department, which will be used to buy digital cameras and other equipment.
Hutton said the donation’s timing could be strategic, but it would not affect his vote.
Neither the Columbia police nor the Wal-Mart Foundation, the retailer’s charitable arm, could be reached for comment.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku and Sixth Ward Councilman Brian Ash said they didn’t believe ulterior motives influenced the donation.
“I’m not one of those who can immediately be suspicious,” Ash said. “I think it should be gratefully accepted.”
Ash said he hasn’t made up his mind on the rezoning and might support new restrictions on how the developer could use rezoned land.
If The Kroenke Group gets its way, it would have room not only for a Wal-Mart, but also for smaller retail outlets. Ash said he would like those lots to expand as the Supercenter shrinks.
“If they could move square footage from the Super Wal-Mart to other retail, that would make it easier for me to support,” he said.
Council members discussed such a proposal at their Dec. 20 meeting but did not vote.
Craig Van Matre, the developer’s attorney, said capping Wal-Mart’s size would nullify a list of compromises the council approved at that same meeting. If The Kroenke Group gets to develop the entire plot, it will pay for a brick exterior to the Wal-Mart, build a natural buffer to block the store from view, modify roads near the development and build a new parking lot for nearby Paxton Keeley Elementary School.
“Our number one concern has been the safety of the children,” Paxton Keeley principal Elaine Hassemer said. “They’ve been very receptive to that.”
Hassemer said the Dec. 20 agreement provides adequately for her students’ safety, a concern often echoed during public comment at that meeting.
Council members said the new offer has allayed many of their constituents’ fears.
“I have heard a great deal of support (from residents) for the latest proposal put forth by the developer,” Fourth Ward Councilman Jim Loveless said.
Loveless said he wouldn’t decide how to vote until the conclusion of public comment at tonight’s meeting. First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton also is undecided.
Neither Mayor Darwin Hindman nor Fifth Ward Councilman John John could be reached for comment.
Opponents of the development say the site is simply not right for any so-called “big box” store and could support a smaller development. Loveless said he shared that view, but knows a Wal-Mart is coming no matter what.
“There are people who have not resigned themselves to the fact that there will be a store at that corner,” Loveless said.
Seventeen commercially zoned acres border the 23 residential acres at stake. Van Matre has said if the council denies his client’s rezoning request, a Wal-Mart would be built on those 17 acres without the brick exterior or other amenities a larger store would bring.
Hutton suggested that the mega-retailer is hoping elected leaders will be swayed by concerns over the 17-acre option.
“I think it is a threat,” Hutton said. “There’s no question that it’s a threat.”
Van Matre and developer Otto Maly could not be reached for comment.
The council is scheduled to make its decision following public comment at tonight’s meeting. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the Daniel Boone City Building.