Planners OK alternative site plans for Wal-Mart, Walgreens

By Thomas Wilson

   The Elizabethton Planning Commission voted to approve two site plans -- but not the site plans submitted -- for two retail developments planned for the North American Corp. property.
   The commission voted to approve site plans that allowed only one street access point off West Elk Avenue for a proposed Walgreens drug store and Wal-Mart supercenter.
   "We have no project," said Buzz Copeland representing Walgreen's after the commission denied the original site plan submitted on behalf of the drug store that called for two curb cuts to access the business. "We have tried 99 percent to accomplish that."
   The commission approved by 6-1 vote an alternative plan that allowed access through the existing NAC campus entrance from West Elk Avenue. The commission also voted 5-2 to approve the city's alternative site plan for Wal-Mart, which also limited the retail giant to one access point off West Elk Avenue.
   Both alternative plans passed by the commission set only the existing curb cut at the West Elk Avenue/Hudson Street intersection that leads into the North American Corp. campus.
   "We have got to have access to West Elk Avenue," Copeland told the commission.
   Director of planning and development David Orduff said an additional curb cut for either the Walgreens or Wal-Mart site plan directly conflicted with the city's Major Thoroughfare Plan and presented a potential public safety concern for the city.
   As part of the alternative site plan, Ornduff presented a future access road system with a new street connecting the Wal-Mart and Walgreens site to Wallace Avenue that provided a secondary access point to West Elk Avenue.
   City public safety officials fire chief Mike Shouse and police chief Roger Deal expressed their reservations about allowing two curb cuts in such close proximity to each other. Deal said the curb cut requested by Walgreens put traffic entering West Elk Avenue too close for traffic safety.
   "I recommend that they (curb cuts) be farther down," Deal said. "Two light poles down is just not far enough."
   Terry Arnold of Carter County Rescue Squad also expressed concern about rescue transport along West Elk given two curb cuts.
   "I feel that it would really slow us down with another cut off," he said.
   The Walgreens submitted site plan called for a building of approximately 14,800 square-feet on a 2.1-acre portion of the North American Corp. property near the West Elk Avenue/Hudson Street intersection. The city and the developers have been at odds since last year over a potential curb cut on West Elk Avenue in close proximity to the West Elk/Hudson intersection.
   The alternative plan also called for access to the business with an access street system to connect the property with another street to access West Elk Avenue.
   Typically a Walgreens will generate $4 to $5 million a year in business and employs 20 to 30 employees, Copeland told the commission.
   "One request they have is they have to have a couple of accesses to their site," he said. "We are trying to make a lot of people happy."
   The commission also opted for an alternative site plan for the Wal-Mart proposal.
   The Knoxville-based development firm Certified Properties had submitted a site plan to develop the 22.69-acre tract where the North American Corporation building stands. The Wal-Mart site plan submitted to the city plans for a building covering 205,000 square feet.
   Kim Henry-Begg said the firm Site, Inc., had conducted a traffic study of potential traffic patterns and problems on West Elk with the two curb cuts.
   "We do Wal-Mart and Walgreens all over the southeast," she said.
   Henry-Begg also said her firm had subcontracted an environmental specialist that had been working with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to develop the Wal-Mart site as part of the "brownfields" development project.
   "TDEC is very excited about this because it is such a development of this size on a site like this," she said.
   "I've been working on this thing for three years," said Chip Slagle, who represented Certified Properties at the meeting.
   Slagle said Wal-Mart planned a building investment of $15 million to construct the supercenter. He added the supercenter would employ upwards of 500 people. He also pointed to the county's recent loss of industrial citizens as a motivator for new development.
   "This is a community that has plants closing and revenues falling," he said.
   Commission chairman Haynes Elliott refused to comment after the meeting about why he felt the alternative plans were superior to the submitted plan.
   Commissioner Victor Deloach, who voted against both plans, said after the meeting he did not feel comfortable with any scenario presented.
   "I didn't like either plan," said Deloach who also had some pointed words about what he felt was corporate America's encroachment into small town life.
   "How many drug stores have gone out in this town already," he added. "There is nothing wrong with people making money ... but they are not being fair to the mom-and-pop operations.
   "If you have a sick child, who can you call? The people you know or some big corporation?"
   Commissioner Jack Cole joined Deloach in voting against the alternative proposal for Wal-Mart. Cole said he did not favor allowing only one access point for Wal-Mart, and that he would've changed his vote for the Walgreen's proposal on retrospect.
   The commission meeting was packed with several city officials and citizens including Mayor Sam LaPorte and City Manager Charles Stahl, as well as North American Corp. president and CEO Charles K. Green.
   After the meeting, Green said he was worried that the city was getting an anti-business reputation outside the community and that the single access point could create more traffic problems than it alleviated with the developments.
   Slagle said that the area surrounding the supercenter could give rise to up to 500,000 square feet of additional development.
   Despite not being the desired plan, Slagle said the Wal-Mart project would go forward, albeit perhaps on hold until the developers and city could reach a clearer agreement.
   "I think we will work with the city and it will work out," Slagle said.