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Wal-Mart gets temporary reprieve

July 13, 2011

WOONSOCKET — Retail giant Wal-Mart might not shut down its outmoded Diamond Hill Road store as soon as the company had originally predicted.
The store is on track for retirement when a bigger, modern Wal-Mart Supercenter, under construction in North Smithfield's Dowling Village, opens for business. Store officials had been shooting for a switchover by the end of next month, but the construction project is taking longer than originally expected.
Bucci Development of Warwick, the company building Dowling Village, now says it could be the end of the year before the Supercenter opens.
“It might not be that long,” said Joseph Shekarchi, a lawyer for Bucci Development. “It might be September. It might be October.”
Shekarchi said the original timeline was always based on rough estimates of how long it would take to complete the new center. He says the project is still basically on schedule.
For years, Wal-Mart had laid the groundwork for converting the Diamond Hill Road store into the region's new Supercenter, a 24-hour retail colossus offering not just the usual hard goods, but fresh produce and other groceries.
The Bentonville, Ark.- based retail powerhouse gobbled up abutting parcels of private and public land to expand parking and build a large addition to the existing store. It fought — and won — two rounds of costly litigation with adversarial neighbors, and received all the necessary regulatory approvals from the state Department of Environmental Management.
The company abruptly switched gears, however, setting course for a new site in Dowling Village when that controversial development finally cleared all of its regulatory obstacles.
What happens to Wal-Mart's real estate on Diamond Hill Road — an 82,000-square-foot shell and roughly 10 acres of land — after the new store opens in North Smithfield is anyone's guess. Wal-Mart isn't ready to announce any plans for the site.
“The new store is scheduled to open during the fall of 2011,” Wal-Mart spokesman Christopher N. Buchanan told The Call. “It will be some time, however, before a decision is made with our Woonsocket property, as the new store in North Smithfield is currently still under construction.”
Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik says he's had no contact with Wal-Mart for over a year, since city officials attempted to persuade the company to operate stores in Dowling Village and the city simultaneously, arguing that the two would serve different markets. Wal-Mart refused, confirming that it would eventually shut down the East Woonsocket store.
Wojcik says he expects Wal-Mart to close the Diamond Hill Road store soon after opening in North Smithfield. Wal-Mart may sit on the real estate for a while, but eventually, said Wojcik, he expects the company to put the parcel on the market.
That raises the specter of a swath of prime real estate located squarely in the city's principal retail zone, sitting idle and creating a void that some fear may swallow up other big retailers.
Rumors are rampant that Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, Sears and perhaps even Staples may abandon the Diamond Hill Road strip for spots in the spiffy new Dowling Village, which has plenty of space for them with good highway accessibility.
But Shekarchi says there is no basis for any of it. Despite vigorous and continuing efforts by Bucci Development to market Dowling Village, Shekarchi says that, to date, the only confirmed tenants of the new retail center are CVS/Caremark, which has been open for some time, and Wal-Mart.
Shekarchi says Bucci Development remains in contact with a number of national chain merchandisers, but no leases are signed. Most prospects are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the economy to improve before committing to an expansion.
“Right now the market is soft,” said Shekarchi. “The only thing holding it down is the national economy.”

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