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Construction begins on Walmart Supercenter

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POLSON — Dirt-moving machines showed up on the site of the new Walmart Supercenter southwest of Polson three weeks ago. 

Neil Nelson, president and owner of Engineered Structures Incorporated, is the senior project manager. He estimated site work on the new Walmart Supercenter would be completed by spring of 2013. Nelson’s company hires the subcontractors, one of whom is DelCon from Kalispell. 

Dan DeWitt is the new Polson Walmart store manager, replacing Cody Grove, who moved to the Great Falls store. According to DeWitt, the new store will be much like the Missoula Walmart Supercenter. Customers  entering the store head left for groceries and right for general merchandise. The Polson store will carry an extended line of groceries, including fresh produce and fresh meat, and also will add a deli. There will not be a tire and lube express or a gas station, said Joshua Phair, Walmart Director of Public Affairs and Government Relations for the western U.S. There will probably be some front-end kiosks for smaller vendors but that won’t be determined for a bit, he said. 

The new Walmart Supercenter will be 155,000 square feet, which is a little more than double the old store’s approximately 57,000 square feet, Phair said. To give some context to the new store’s size, Phair said the Walmart in Kalispell is about 190,000 sq. ft. He also said the store will open mid to late fall of 2013, if all goes as planned.

Since the store will have increased floor space for a deli, fresh meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and frozen, there will need to be corresponding back room areas for backstock and storage. 

“The grocery component will require a lot more man power to stock,” Phair said. 

DeWitt said Walmart currently employs 110 to 120 people, and after the supercenter opens, that number will be around 160 to 180. 

Current employees will transfer to the new store, Phair said. 

DeWitt agreed and said the personalities are great at the Polson Walmart.

One of Walmart’s hallmarks is putting money back into the community. 

DeWitt worked for an independent store before he came to Walmart. 

“As far as putting dollars back in the community, I’ve never seen anything like it.” he said. 

The store just donated $2,500 to the Festival of Trees, and has also donated to other non-profits in the Polson area as well as selecting a Teacher of the Year each year and providing scholarships for graduating seniors. Speaking of Women’s Health is a program the local Walmart funds. Nothing much happened with the program in 2012, but DeWitt said next year the program will be beefed up. 

Walmart nationally supports a volunteerism program. Employees volunteer for any group they choose and donate hours. The money earned for those hours of work goes directly to the group they chose.

“We are incredibly excited to get the store open; it’s been a long wait,” Phair said. “Our customers have indicated they are ready for a supercenter.” 

While that may be true, it’s been a rocky road for the Walmart Supercenter. The original store opened in 1998, but when Walmart’s plans to build a supercenter came to light in October of 2005, a local group, Lake County First, formed. They were a not-for-profit, grassroots action committee in opposition to the Polson Walmart Supercenter and to keep uncontrolled growth from coming to Polson.

Greg Hertz, part owner in Moody’s Market, was involved with Lake County First and in 2006 commissioned the Retail Research Group to analyze the effects a supercenter might have on local grocery stores in Polson, Ronan, Pablo, St. Ignatius and surrounding communities around Flathead Lake.

The survey anticipated that Super 1 Foods and Safeway in Polson could lose 33 to 36 percent of sales, Pablo Family Foods, 26 percent, and Mission Mart and Harvest Foods in Ronan, 15-17 percent,

“The study shows grocery stores in the county are meeting the needs of our population here, and a supercenter with a 40,000 to 50,000 square foot grocery department does not have the population to support it without taking sales away from existing grocery stores,” Hertz said in a Valley Journal interview in 2006.   

Lake County First filed suit to oppose the Polson City Council’s June 2006 decision to annex and rezone property where Walmart wanted to build. The lawsuit alleged the Polson City Council did not diligently review Walmart’s request for annexation, that it voted to annex the property with insufficient evidence and then failed to explain or document the reasons for its decision. The suit also said Walmart’s plans to access Polson’s water and storm drainage system were not within the requirements of law.

To remove any chance of local bias, Judge Nels Swandal came from Livingston to hear the case in District Court and found against Lake County First, but they appealed the case to the Montana Supreme Court, which also found against them in 2009.

Things are calmer in the area although people are interested in the construction. 

The Polson Business Community has not discussed the impacts of the new Walmart Supercenter lately, said Ken Avison, PBC president. He added that he thinks maybe all the discussion that took place in 2005-06 led to “a sense of acceptance and how we deal with Walmart in our personal business.” 

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