By Susan Dickson
Following months of rumors about Walmart locating in northern Chatham County, the company submitted a site plan last week for a location in Chatham just south of the Orange County line along U.S. 15-501.
According to a statement issued by Chatham County officials, Walmart plans to develop 20 acres of a 63-acre site along 15-501. The portion of the site proposed for development is already zoned for business use, which means the project wonâ€™t require a rezoning or approval by the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, according to County Manager Charlie Horne.
The move could bring development to a site that has been the subject of debate for a number of years. In 2005, Chatham commissioners approved a plan for the site that included a Lowes Home Improvement store in the interior of the property and three outparcels along 15-501, but the proposal was later successfully challenged in court by a group of neighbors in the area.
The 148,400-square-foot Walmart planned for northern Chatham would be part of the companyâ€™s Building Sustainable Value Network, in which Walmart builds more energy-efficient and water-efficient stores, according to a statement from the company. Plans include a full-service store with a range of merchandise and groceries, including fresh local produce, as well as a pharmacy and garden center, staffing about 300 workers.
Implications for Orange
To the north, some say the retailerâ€™s plans highlight the need for Chapel Hill to revisit its Small Area Plan for the southern part of town, which was developed 20 years ago. The plan created zoning and development parameters balancing a planned urban development â€“ Southern Village â€“ with the preservation of surrounding environmentally sensitive areas and open space.
â€œSince [the development of the Small Area Plan], weâ€™ve looked at other parts of town,â€ like the N.C. 54 corridor and the northern part of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said. â€œWeâ€™ve come up with plans that would encourage development along those corridors that would still be respectful of other community interests. Now I think we need to do that in the southern part of town as well.â€
Southern Chapel Hill has changed significantly in the past 20 years, he added, noting that despite changes, â€œthere are still some environmentally sensitive properties that need to be protected.â€
Through the Chapel Hill 2020 visioning process, Kleinschmidt said he hopes the town will develop a better idea of just what the community would like to see in southern Chapel Hill.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce CEO Aaron Nelson said Chapel Hill should reconsider Obey Creek, a large development proposed for the 120-acre site across from Southern Village â€“ part of the Small Area Plan identified for preservation â€“ with a major retail and residential center. The project was reviewed by the council in 2010, and it is likely to come back to it at some point this year.
â€œThe possibility with an Obey Creek is that you would capture some of that sales-tax leakage,â€ Nelson said, noting that Orange County residents spend about $1.5 billion on retail every year, $500 million of which is spent out of county.
The local development process has encouraged developers hoping to capitalize on Orange County to site their developments just outside county borders in other communities, Nelson said.
â€œThey get the revenue; we get the traffic,â€ he said. â€œOrange County residents are going to drive out of the county to shop.â€
However, Nelson said the sales-tax funds that the new Walmart store could bring Chatham County could improve services and schools in Chatham, thus enhancing the ability of some Orange County employers to recruit and retain more-qualified employees, since many of those who work in Orange live in Chatham.
And as for Orange County retailers, Nelson said he believes the impact will be mixed.
â€œWe have great local brands and we have a loyal shopping group and our citizens care a lot about buying local, and I think because of that our local retailers will hold up better against the competition than in other communities,â€ he said.
However, Nelson said, the Walmart could have a more significant impact on nearby national retailers, especially grocery stores.
â€œI think itâ€™s a big draw for the convenience shopper.â€