by Joseph Gresser
copyright the Chronicle 1-16-2013
DERBY — “Since Ames closed five years or so ago my vocabulary has consisted of two four-letter words — when and soon,” said Brian Smith, chairman of the Derby Selectmen, Tuesday. “Now is a good word to use.”
He was speaking a crowd gathered in a field just off Route 5 where, if all goes smoothly, a Walmart might open its doors in the fall of 2014.
The crowd included many local residents and a sizeable array of state legislators along with Governor Peter Shumlin.
All were there to cheer the announcement that after eight years of off and on discussion, Walmart, the Arkansas-based retail giant, plans to build an almost 150,000-square-foot Supercenter in the Northeast Kingdom.
The mood was upbeat. There were protestors on hand, but their signs were meant for the Governor and supported a wind tower moratorium.
Mr. Shumlin, though, was focused on the new store, which he said would complement other development planned for the Northeast Kingdom.
He pointed out Gisele Seymour, one of the project’s biggest supporters. “Gisele gathered more signatures for the project than there are live people in the Kingdom,” he joked of her petition drive.
“This is how we create jobs,” Mr. Shumlin said. He said the project “fits into a mosaic of thousands of jobs for Kingdom kids.”
Mr. Shumlin crowed that the Derby store would be a victory over New Hampshire, to which many Kingdom residents have traveled to shop for years.
“New Hampshire loses revenue. New Hampshire loses a few jobs and we gained them. It’s about time we got smart,” he declared.
Developer Jeff Davis built a Walmart in Williston and has begun construction, after a long battle with opponents, on one in St. Albans. He acted as master of ceremonies. He said that Mr. Shumlin had worked with him on the project but was not a “rubber stamp.”
He said the Governor asked questions about the size of the store and the possibility of putting it in Newport instead of on the Newport-Derby Road. Mr. Davis said that a study conducted to determine the feasibility of a proposal to build the store in Newport floated by the Preservation Trust of Vermont (PTV), was conducted at the behest of the Governor.
The study determined that the PTV proposal to build a multi-story Walmart on Main Street in Newport was not economically sound.
Mr. Davis introduced and thanked Senator Bobby Starr for his longstanding support along with former Senator Vince Illuzzi, who missed the event.
Newport Mayor Paul Monette came in for special praise for his support of the project, as did Mr. Smith. “He’s a household word at my house and my office. He’s called and called and called,” Mr. Davis said.
Alexandra Serra, who is from the public relations department of Walmart’s New England office, said the new store will mean 300 more Walmart jobs in Vermont. She said the company will also increase its charitable contributions in the state, which, she said, currently amount to $500,000 a year.
Ms. Serra confirmed reports of a new policy by Walmart to offer jobs to any veteran who left the service with an honorable discharge in the past year.
She said that the new store will definitely include a grocery department with fresh food, but otherwise said plans for what departments the new store will include have yet to be finished.
After the brief ceremony, which attracted media attention from around the state, Mr. Davis discussed some of the details of the project.
The plans for the store, displayed on both sides of the podium, Mr. Davis said are just preliminary drawings. The actual plans will not be drawn up until Walmart has decided what it needs.
Mr. Davis said Walmart originally wanted to have a 180,000-to-190,000-square-foot store, but scaled it back at his request.
He said that Tuesday’s announcement marks only the beginning of the process. Before the permitting process can get underway Mr. Davis said, there will need to be studies about the project’s effects on the local economy, traffic and air quality as well as storm water and sewer studies.
Once those studies are complete, he said, he will draw up plans and begin the Act 250 and Derby town planning process. He will also start negotiating with local leaders about impact fees.
Agreements drawn up with Derby and Newport and ratified by wide margins in balloting in each town commit both communities to support Walmart in the permitting process.
They also promise to provide funds to the towns to mitigate any untoward impacts the project may have. Newport is to get at least $600,000 over six years. Derby’s payments will be negotiated, Mr. Davis said.
There are still potential hurdles, Mr. Davis said, including the possibility that people may try to block the store.
Mr. Davis said, “This is a developer’s risk project.” If Walmart decides it will take too long or cost too much to build in Derby they can still back out.
Being at risk is no change for Mr. Davis. He bought the property between Route 5 and Shattuck Hill Road for about $1-million eight years ago. Last year he added more land to the parcel, investing another $600,000. He still has enough property to build several smaller stores near the Walmart, although Mr. Davis said he currently has no plans for the land.
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