News: Wary of Wal-Mart

Fairfax/Hyde Park residents fear encroaching mega store

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Graham Lienhart

Fairfax resident Deborah Scott says a new Wal-Mart supercenter store would destroy safety and property values in her neighborhood.

The prospect of a Wal-Mart supercenter has people who live near Murray Avenue in Fairfax and Erie Avenue in Hyde Park worrying about the impact on their community.

Wal-Mart supercenters, more than twice the size of conventional Wal-Mart stores, include not only general merchandise but also a full-size supermarket. They're typically open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At stake is the site of the former Ford transmission plant in Fairfax, near the convergence of Erie and Murray avenues and Red Bank Road.

Regency Centers, a shopping center builder and operator based in Jacksonville, Fla., is developing the property. Regency also owns Hyde Park Plaza, home of huge Kroger and bigg's supermarkets.

Regency executives have not confirmed that a Wal-Mart supercenter will be at the Fairfax location. They have, however, presented preliminary plans to the Fairfax Village Council that include an unnamed "big box" more than 200,000 square feet in size between Murray Avenue and Red Bank Road.

"At that size, it most likely is a Wal-Mart supercenter," says attorney Tim Mara, who is helping Milford residents put a Wal-Mart rezoning issue on the November ballot, the first initiative of its kind in the Cincinnati area. "There aren't many stores besides a Wal-Mart supercenter that require 200,000 square feet."

'They'll destroy us'
The Village of Fairfax has fewer than 800 households and is less than one square mile in size.

It's a village with a sense of pride and a share of tragedy.

Controlling the flash floods of the Little Duck Creek has been a peak concern in recent years, especially after a 2001 flood killed a Fairfax man and his adult daughter and damaged dozens of houses.

But Fairfax residents are resilient and optimistic about their future. Celebrating its 50th anniversary of incorporation this year, the village has fostered a small-town feeling that's helped its residential property values rise.

Deborah Scott, who has lived in Fairfax since 1991, worries that increased traffic and crime would follow a Wal-Mart supercenter, changing the very things that make the village special.

"Our streets are small and our children play in them," she says. "They walk to the elementary school every day. One of the best things about Fairfax is that we know our kids are safe when they are outside. That's why people want to move here. If there's a 24-hour Wal-Mart nearby, it will attract people from all over the area at all hours of the night. What will that do to the value of our homes?"

Other residents fear personal property might be taken if the narrow streets of Fairfax are widened to accommodate East-side shoppers from Wooster Pike who would use Watterson and other local streets.

"I'd hate to see Wal-Mart come to our village," says a senior citizen who has lived in Fairfax more than 70 years. "I know what they do to a village. They'll destroy us."

The former Ford transmission plant was built in 1950 and shut down in 1979. It was demolished earlier this year, and cleanup efforts have unearthed 18 underground rooms and substantial environmental contamination. The property was awarded $3 million in Clean Ohio funds, but the cost to remove pollutants has escalated far beyond that, possibly to $8 million to $10 million.

The Ford site is not zoned for "big box" retail like a Wal-Mart supercenter. For the property to be rezoned, Regency Centers must submit a plan to the Fairfax Planning Commission. The village of Fairfax must hold a public hearing, and the village council would have to vote to rezone. Regency Centers is expected to submit its plan to Fairfax officials within a week.

Managing Goliath
Rezoning large tracts of land for retail use is new to Fairfax officials. Lacking the experience and staff to study the long-term implications of a major rezoning issue, the village council has hired Gary Meisner of Meisner & Associates/Land Vision, a local planning firm, to review the proposal for the Ford site development.

"Meisner's task is to assist the Fairfax Planning Committee and village council in interpreting the plans and the code for the old Ford site," says Village Administrator Jennifer Kaminer.

But neighboring residents have questioned whether Meisner can accurately assess Fairfax's needs. Though Meisner has been hired by the village to be its consultant, Fairfax records indicate that Regency is paying his fee.

The village of Fairfax is hoping that whatever is built at the Ford site will generate at least $350,000 in income tax revenue each year, according to Kaminer. Whether a Wal-Mart supercenter will yield that much Fairfax payroll tax is not known.

"We know that if we had office buildings with higher-paid employees on the site, we'd get a lot of income tax revenue for Fairfax," Kaminer says.

At the heart of the issue will be not only tax dollars for the village of Fairfax but whether residents believe the money is worth the significant changes a retailer like Wal-Mart will bring to their neighborhood. National reports indicate that increased crime follows Wal-Marts to communities, and there is a growing concern that a Wal-Mart contributes to blight, especially when a store is later closed.

It's for reasons like these that Harrison officials unanimously rejected a recent proposal to rezone part of their community for a new Wal-Mart supercenter.

"Wal-Mart even put a $1 million financial inducement in the form of a new fire engine on the table," Mara says. "But the city of Harrison still said no." ©

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