Wal-Mart in Poulsbo: should Bainbridge care?

By this time next year, the large chain stores that are anathema to many on the island will be both bigger and closer than ever before.

That is, if Wal-Mart follows through with its plans to build a 150,000-square-foot outlet to the Olhava development on the outskirts of Poulsbo, at the junction of Highways 305 and 3.

The store is a lot closer to the island than the Silverdale shopping complex – indeed it’s about as close to north end of the island as downtown Winslow.

And the store is big – three-and-a-half acres under one roof, about the equivalent of the Ace Hardware site on High School Road, parking lot and all.

“This will have an effect on the island,” said Ken Schuricht of Winslow Hardware and Mercantile. “A lot of people go off the island already, and this will give them a closer place to go.

“Wal-Mart destroys the towns it moves into, takes dollars away to Arkansas and doesn’t contribute much to the well-being of the community.”

Kevin Dwyer, executive director of the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce, said Wal-Mart will represent a threat despite the loyalty of many island shoppers.

“Situations arise when people can’t find something they want on Bainbridge Island, they will go to Wal-Mart, and while they are there they will find something else,” Dwyer said. “But I think a lot of people will boycott it.”

Reno, Nev.-based Wal-Mart spokesperson Amy Hill said Monday that despite its size, the store is not going to be a so-called Supercenter, meaning it will not offer groceries.

“It will have 36 general merchandise departments, and some convenience-type food,” Hill said, “but not a full, self-service grocery department.”

The store will sell household goods, clothing, electronics, fabric and cloth, small furniture and automotive supplies, among other things, Hill said. It will offer what she calls an “extensive selection of DVDs, videos and compact discs,” and a smaller selection of books.

The store will employ 250 people, Hill said, about 70 percent of them full-time.

Present plans call for the store to open “about this time next year,” after some nine months of construction, she said. The East Bremerton Wal-Mart will continue to operate as it is now.

While the exact methodology Wal-Mart uses to site stores is proprietary information that Hill said relates to such factors as population density, academic observers have estimated that Wal-Mart envisions a trade radius of up to 35 miles in non-urban areas.

That would suggest the company thinks Bainbridge customers will shop at the Poulsbo store.

The low-key announcement made some three weeks ago has stirred up a firestorm in Poulsbo, where two community meetings have taken place and anti-Wal-Mart groups have gathered the last two weekends.

“The outpouring of support has been overwhelming,” said music teacher Carson Farley, one of the organizers of the Poulsbo anti-Wal-Mart campaign.

Wal-Mart is viewed as an anchor tenant at the master-planned Olhava development on a former Nike missile installation. While a plan to build a branch of Olympic College on the site has received extensive publicity, Farley said there has been very little information about the possible retail mix.

“We all knew Olympic College would be coming, and everyone thought that was a good idea,” he said. “Then we hear, guess what, there will be big box stores, fast foods and gas stations.

“We are proud of our community, and are questioning whether we want the standards of a strip mall,” he said.

The store’s opponents are looking at both a legal and political fight.

While the Olhava master plan has been approved by the city of Poulsbo, each specific building needs a separate approval, according to Van Bergen, a non-practicing attorney who is volunteering to fight the development.

The Wal-Mart site approval is being processed, and is expected next week. If the permit is granted, Bergen said the group plans to appeal to the Poulsbo City Council, then possibly to district court.

“Right now, our hope is to persuade the Poulsbo City Council to reject the project,” he said.

Other approvals are still in the works. The comment period is currently open for a stormwater discharge permit from the state Department of Ecology, which gives opponents another potential avenue of appeal, particularly because the water would discharge into Johnson Creek, a salmon stream.

The opponents have hired environmental lawyer Ryan Vancil, an island resident who works with a Seattle law firm. And it is actively looking for support from other communities, specifically including Bainbridge.

Karen Ahern, an islander working with the anti-store group, says she is concerned about possible contaminants that may be lingering from the missile site.

“Our kids are going to be affected. A lot of them will be on that campus,” she said.

Dwyer said the store is just becoming a visible issue among the island’s business community, and the Chamber has not yet taken an official position.

“We’re still in the exploratory stages of whether we’re going to formally support the people opposing the store, but emotionally, we probably favor that position,” he said. “They have our sympathy.”

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