At the corner of Roe Avenue and Johnson Drive facing Shawnee Mission Parkway, if you look to north side of the street, you see Roeland Park. There are sparsely inhabited businesses, including a cremation center and weight loss store, facing a weed- and dirt-filled lot on the Mission side of Johnson Drive. This empty lot will be the new Walmart and Gateway Development expected to open in 2014. It will close the Roeland Park Walmart store located 8/10 of a mile away down Roe Avenue. Walmart is the number one sales tax generator in Roeland Park.
Thomas Harris’s law firm is one of the businesses on the Roeland Park side of the street. He lives in Mission, but works and owns property in Roeland Park.
“I’m just tired of all the fuss here,” says Harris. “Something needs to happen. And I’ve got mixed emotions about it all because of my residence in both places, and having sat here and looked at this vacant lot for how many years now?”
The emptiness has been an eyesore to both Mission and Roeland Park. This lot used to be Mission Mall. In 2004 revisions to the FEMA floodplain map put the property Mission Mall sat on in a floodplain. There were major renovations needed to keep up the property. Around that time Walmart stepped in and offered to build a Super Walmart store there, but the residents of Mission rejected the plan saying they wanted the location to house a mixed-use property.
Tom Valenti is the Managing Member of the Gateway Developers of the Cameron Group. He says, “Essentially the city said, 'Look, if you’re going to be a discount department store it can’t be more than 50,000 square feet per level, unless you’re going to do a multi-level garage parking. And we really want to see more than that on the property.”
The Cameron Group purchased the land and demolished the mall in 2006, launching their plans for the Gateway Mixed Used Development Project. While the city of Mission invested about $12 million in storm water improvements for the property, the developers mapped up a vision for the corner. But the plan has been taking a lot longer than the developers and city had expected.
Valenti says, “In 2007, when the condominium market went away because there was no more financing to condos, we looked at converting the residential to the multi-family rental units. In 2007 and 2008 when the economy turned even worse, we came up with the potential of including the aquarium and hotel in the project.”
The aquarium was to be two to four times bigger than the one in Crown Center, with talks of possible scuba diving classes. It was to be a regional attraction, part of a plan to use STAR Bonds, a sales tax revenue bond offered to Kansas municipalities for major commercial entertainment and tourism areas. And there were still more spaces to be filled.
Valenti says, “In 2010 when retailers were still not doing much we looked at increasing the office component of the project. By August 2011 it was clear that that wasn’t working, we hadn’t signed a tenant yet, and low and behold Walmart came to us.”
Now even though Walmart came to them, STAR bonds are supposed to be used for bringing in new businesses, not as incentives for businesses to move from one Kansas town to another. And Roeland Park didn’t want to lose their Walmart and the sales tax dollars to Mission.
Valenti couldn’t secure the STAR bonds, which got rid of the aquarium and hotel plan, but Walmart stayed on board. The store became the key element in securing and expediting the developments’ plans. It agreed to be part of a community improvement district—paying taxes with other retailers to bring in financing for the project.
Valenti says there has been a lot of compromising. “You know the city wanted an organic grocer in addition to the organic product that Walmart would provide. So you know the city really wanted that and was helpful with us in making sure that Walmart understood that we needed to have kind of retailer in here."
In addition to Walmart, The Gateway Development has secured Sprouts Organic Grocery Store, Toby Keith’s Bar and Grill, and Aspen Fitness Center. They’re still looking for more retailers. There will also be 300 residential units.
“I’m telling you that the outside of this building will be unlike any Walmart I’ve ever seen,” says Valenti.
This 150,000-square-foot Super Walmart won’t be made of cement blocks, it will be on the bottom level of a multi-level building with its own parking, but surrounded by other retailers.
“Like along Johnson Dr. it will have store front in it. The store front will carry murals, there will be a community message board and special lighting,” Valenti says. “There is nothing like this, especially with another grocer, especially with residential and other major retailers. I think this is pretty unique.”
Roeland Park has known Walmart was looking for a bigger retail space since 2004. Walmart had received tax increment finance incentives when it first came to Roeland Park Shopping center in 1996. The spot was never built as a Walmart, which made it kind of a smaller hybrid style Walmart store.
Even though Roeland Park made offers to improve onsite facilities, move tenants, make more room, Walmart turned them down.
“Somebody’s got to get the tax dollars,” says Roeland Park resident Theresa Boydston, who is on an afternoon walk.
Roeland Park will lose $700,000 in sales tax dollars when Walmart leaves, which is no small number when your annual budget is 5.5 million dollars. She says it’s frustrating to be missing out. “Roeland Park residents are just you know they’re leaving us and they’re going like a mile away or whatever.”
Though the loss of tax dollars is bothersome, but Roeland Park knows that if the Gateway Development in Mission is a success, it could create great economic perks for their community as well.
Aaron Otto is the City Manager of Roeland Park. He says, “Now that the Gateway Project is going to happen, it’s going to be a benefit for the region. I’m disappointed that Walmart is leaving unfortunately, they’ve been a good tenant, but I hope that project works out well.”
Otto says the success of the project could lead to higher property values, and more people shopping at businesses on Roe on their way to the development someday—but that day is not here yet.
Otto says, “(20)13 is funded as we anticipate, so it’s (20)14 the next budget we work on is when we start seeing that decline in revenues where decisions need to be made.”
Those decisions mean cuts. Sales tax in Roeland Park finances current infrastructure and bonds on infrastructure debt, the community center, police department, and other things. People are uneasy about how the budget cuts will affect the community. But the full impacts of Walmart’s move won’t be known until the City Council of Roeland Park drafts the 2014 budget this spring.