A proposed Walmart Supercenter in the Ringling Shopping Center will appear before the Sarasota Planning Board Nov. 14 for a vote.
Although some opposition remains, neighborhood leaders in the two neighborhoods closest to the project say they are OK with the supercenter and that it is probably the only viable option in the current economic climate.
Many neighbors were swayed in favor of the new store, because Wal-Mart Stores Inc. listened to the neighborhood concerns, they said. Alta Vista Neighborhood Association President Candy Spaulding said the new store will be convenient for residents, especially those who are retired, to shop for groceries and other items without having to travel far.
As part of the application process, the corporation agreed to move the 97,000-square-foot store 50 feet closer to Ringling Avenue, thus moving the building away from the south property line, where several homes would abut the new store. Additional trees and greenspace were also added to the plans for the project’s southern edge.
“They didn’t move it as much as we wanted, but they did listen to us,” Spaulding said.
Spaulding said her dream project for that location wouldn’t have been a Walmart.
“I’d love to see an arts shop and Ma-and-Pa shops,” Spaulding said. “Unfortunately, in this economy, no one has the money to do something like that, and if they do they aren’t looking at our little plaza.”
In late spring, Spaulding sent out an email asking residents what they thought about the supercenter, and out of about 15 emails, 13 were in support of the project.
In addition to convenience, residents said they wanted to see something built and that any new jobs would be good in an area where some residents have been out of work for some time.
Spaulding said she was pleasantly surprised when she heard during one of the meetings with corporate representatives that the average non-manager Walmart employee makes slightly more than $12 an hour.
A group that opposes the Walmart project has been using social media to get its message out in the last few weeks leading up to the Planning Board vote.
A Facebook page, “Boycott Walmart in the Ringling Plaza,” has 630 followers, and opponents have even created T-shirts that read: “No to Walmart in Ringling Plaza.”
State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota graduate Bryan Hadley is part of the social media opposition. He said he doesn’t like the idea of a big box store, such as Walmart, being built on property so close to downtown and Payne Park. Hadley would like to see a project that fits more into the city’s architecture, with either a Mediterranean appearance or something that fits the Sarasota School of Architecture influence.
“(The Walmart) will be the same generalized box they build everywhere else but with minor tweaks to its facade and slightly shrunk,” Hadley said.
Myron Nickle, president of the Gardens of Ringling Park, said most of his neighbors approve of the project because the corporation has been willing to work with surrounding neighborhoods. He agrees with Spaulding that the Walmart might be the best the neighborhood can expect to replace the abandoned Publix and mostly shuttered storefronts. A few businesses remain open.
However, Nickle’s perfect-world concept for that area would be a mixed-use project with a grocery anchor, retail and maybe some café space.
“We would like to see something different than a Walmart, but we would like something other than an abandoned plaza there,” he said.
Nickle’s ideal concept is similar to a proposal that was floated a few years ago before it met vocal opposition. Nickle and other Gardens of Ringling residents advocated for that mixed-use project, although other nearby residents spoke out against it.
“It was a neat project,” Nickle said.
That project’s fate was tied closely to a separate, nearby project, developer Ron Burks’ School Avenue condo project that a group of residents, led by Alta Vista neighborhood leaders, fought against for three years. Ultimately, Burks decided against building the project, even though he eventually won approval from the city.
Nickle thinks both the mixed-use project and Burks’ development were missed opportunities for his neighborhood. But he remains hopeful that the area can still become one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city.
“It is close enough to the park and downtown,” Nickle said. “It is just a wonderful neighborhood nestled in.”
The Walmart at Ringling Avenue is likely to become a reality because of two factors — the supercenter meets the city’s zoning codes, and it is approximately the same size as the current Ringling Plaza building. The planning board casts the final vote, unless the City Commission appeals that decision.