As gold-colored shovels ceremoniously broke ground for the new Wal-Mart Supercenter in Kenai on Monday afternoon, Kenai Mayor Pat Porter expressed her enthusiasm for the project.
“I’ve been waiting three years for this,” Porter said as she donned a blue Wal-Mart vest, complete with her name and a giant yellow smiley face on the back.
A few blocks up the Kenai Spur Highway in front of Safeway, some central peninsula residents shared her enthusiasm. Others didn’t.
“I’m happy they’re coming,” said Connie Hamilton, of Kenai. “Cheaper clothes. I don’t have to drive to Anchorage now. I can stay here.”
Hamilton said she’d be happy to see any new chain in town. “The more the merrier,” she said.
Becky Puch, of Nikiski, had mixed feelings.
“It’s good for the consumer, I guess, but it’s sure not good for the working person,” she said.
Puch said she doesn’t like some of Wal-Mart’s business practices, like how they dictate prices to suppliers, which can force them to look for cheap labor in places like China, or can put them out of business.
“I just don’t like how they treat workers,” she said. “… I’ll probably shop there but I wish there were other higher-level stores coming in.”
Target was the retailer most frequently mentioned on residents’ wish lists of new businesses to come to town. Others were Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s, and TGI Friday’s.
Or none at all.
“We’re not that big of a community where you can have a lot of chain stores,” said Jack Alexander, of Kenai. “It would be nice, but I think you’d have a larger community.”
The Alexanders lived in Anchorage for nearly 30 years. Although they liked the big city for some things, Alexander said he doesn’t want Kenai to turn into another Anchorage.
Will it? Where Wal-Mart goes, will Target and others follow?
No — at least for now, said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch.
“While I harbor some hopes in the future possibly of seeing Target down here, it’s not going to happen soon,” Koch said. “My last conversation with Target is they’re focusing on their two stores in Anchorage and the (Matanuska-Susitna) Valley. In the next three to five years, depending on their success in performance in that market, they will look at expanding to Fairbanks or Kenai.”
There are only so many pairs of socks and desk lamps one area needs, after all.
“Our peninsula has 60,000 folks. These stores cost a lot of money to build. … They’ve got to have a lot of dollars go through the front door. There comes a point where the market will be served by what’s here. That will be what Target and others are looking for.”
The rumor mill has been churning about what may be built on the spare chunk of parking lot outside the new Aspen Hotel in Kenai, or what may crop up in the vicinity of Wal-Mart.
“They’re just rumors. One day Outback’s going to come, then the Gap, then Old Navy. They’re all nice stories and thoughts, but no one’s contacted me to have any serious discussion about it,” Koch said.
Wal-Mart will have lots near the new store that could be leased or sold to other businesses. Whether any of those businesses will be newcomers to the area is anyone’s guess for now.
“My experience with Wal-Mart is information is pretty hard to come by with them,” Koch said. “They play their cards mighty close to the vest, and we may find out what they’ll do with those lots when somebody moves in and they put a sign up that says ‘Future site of somebody.’”
Jennifer Spall, Wal-Mart’s public relations spokeswoman for the Northwest, said the company plans to clear the lot and do dirt-work first, then start construction in April. The plan, weather permitting, is to have the new store open by the end of next year or spring 2010. Plans call for a roughly 200,000square-foot grocery and retail supercenter behind Kenai Chrysler Center. She said Wal-Mart would be hiring 250 to 300 sales associates for the Kenai store.
“It kinda depends if I have the time. I’ll probably go to Fred Meyer. I actually think the quality is probably better. But if I really need something quick. …I don’t really go for the cheapest, I go for what’s the quickest.”
— Cory Lehl, North Kenai
“It’s a free country. I don’t know if Safeway’s really happy about it. In this country they can go wherever they want to go, I guess. It’s business based. Isn’t competition good?”
— Jack Alexander, Kenai
“Fred Meyer needs some competition. I hope it doesn’t hurt the small businesses … but I think we need more of a selection.”
— Susan Holit, Soldotna
“I’m afraid that it’ll hurt the other small businesses in the area. At the same time it will be nice to go to the same place to get everything.”
— Carolyn Snowder, Kenai