Loss of Wal-Mart could distract Atascadero from revitalizing downtown

So Wal-Mart is dead in Atascadero.

I can’t say I’m surprised or sad about that, as the project never made sense to me from either a corporate or retail shopping perspective.

First, the site for the ill-fated superstore at Del Rio Road and El Camino Real is a mere 8 1/2  miles from the existing Wal-Mart in Paso Robles. That’s a 10-minute drive at best.

If there’s something I need at Wal-Mart, it’s not a problem cruising up a few exits on the highway.

Second, Atascadero already has a plethora of discount stores.

With Big Lots, Dollar Tree, Styles for Less, Big 5 and the Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, the Mission Oaks center across the street is practically a deconstructed Wal-Mart already — except for the garden shop, but that’s just one exit up at Home Depot already, too.

And that’s not even mentioning Kmart just down the road a bit.

The argument for Wal-Mart was that it would draw in large, new numbers of shoppers, capturing tax dollars that are now going out of town, but whether those people would have continued to visit the neighboring stores or skipped them altogether was never tested.

The project did make sense from the city’s perspective, as it promised to generate nearly $600,000 in tax revenues annually. Even if Wal-Mart did poach some other local stores’ business, the overall impact would have boosted Atascadero’s bottom line for sure.

That thinking held up at City Hall even after a botched 2012 negotiation over necessary traffic improvements left Atascadero to pick up the difference when the price tag for a new interchange and road upgrades increased by millions of dollars in 2014.

Who knows how much that bill will be by the time it actually gets built, but at least the city has a second chance to do the deal correctly.

For now, it’s back to the drawing board, and Wal-Mart is looking for a buyer while pledging to help the city move forward to “identify other suitable uses.”

What those uses may be remains a mystery at the moment, but I bet it’s unlikely anything as large as what’s been proposed for the past decade. A handful of midsized stores may be a better approach these days, when more and more dollars are shifting online.

If you need evidence of the changing appeal of brick-and-mortar stores, look no further than Madonna Plaza and the SLO Promenade, where the massive former Forever 21 and Gottschalks space has been a cavern of nothingness for more than a year and the sizable ex-homes of Sports Authority and Staples also sit empty.

Now, if you were looking to open a large or midsized store, would you build a new one in Atascadero or grab one of those open spaces in San Luis Obispo?

So Wal-Mart and Atascadero may have their hands full looking for a new owner, but the mayor sounds optimistic at the moment.

Aside from the angst this news has caused for city leaders assessing their bottom line, perhaps the worst impact is that it threatens to distract attention from efforts to revitalize downtown.

I would much prefer the city spend its energy twisting the arms of the dentists, doctors and insurance agents around Sunken Gardens and getting them to relocate out to Morro Road than chasing national retailers like T.J. Maxx.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You guys have a civic duty to move out of Atascadero’s premier location, and collectively, you are preventing the city from moving forward and ever realizing its true potential.

On Friday, Tom Comar, Wal-Mart foe and co-founder of Save Atascadero, somewhat amusingly celebrated the news of Wal-Mart’s demise by saying, “We’ve made Atascadero great again.”

But Comar is wrong. This is only one small step.

The city center needs cafes, shops and restaurants, and Atascadero won’t be great until it reclaims Sunken Gardens, chases off those various commercial squatters, and turns the space over to people who will put out a bunch of pretty tables on patios beneath twinkling lights.

Despite whatever happens on Del Rio Road, there’s no better time than the present to pursue that goal with vigor and passion.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911, @joetarica

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