Proposed Wal-Mart SuperCenter still on the table

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   The possibility of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter coming to Elizabethton is not a dead issue, according to engineering firms doing exploratory work for the company.
   Representatives from Site Infrastructure Transportation Engineers and Soils and Materials Engineers of Knoxville both have been in talks with Johnson City Environmental Assistance Center/Tennessee Department of Environment regarding cleanup of the former North American Fibers site. A February 2000 fire damaged more than 700,000 square feet of the manufacturing building formerly used to produce rayon.
   According to conceptual drawings dated Nov. 19, 1999, and submitted to the state, the proposed SuperCenter would encompass approximately 26.45 acres. The existing Wal-Mart, excluding parking area, now takes up 103,378 square feet. The proposed building would occupy about twice that amount of square footage.
   Representatives from TDEC divisions of Solid Waste Management, Water Pollution Control, and Underground Storage Tanks met in late March with Charles Green and Robert Smalling of North American Corp., EnSafe -- a consultant for North American -- members of First Tennessee Development District, SITE, S&ME, and Certified Properties regarding the SuperCenter, however, no notes from the meeting were available in state files. Calls to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., were not returned. Liz Porter of S&ME deferred calls to SITE, which would only confirm that the proposal is still active.
   Mark Braswell, director of the Environmental Assistance Center, said work is continuing on the North American site. "As I understand it, Wal-Mart is still interested. Wal-Mart is kind of a third party in this deal at the moment. They haven't bought any property."
   Members of the various TDEC divisions met in-house recently to discuss environmental issues related to the site and to give a status report.
   "We're still doing work with Charles Green and North American Fibers to continue on with the solid waste issues, the underground storage tank issues, and the water pollution control issues," Braswell said. "They're still the responsible party at this point in time."
   In addition to tearing down buildings damaged by the fire, North American, on its own, has demolished five other buildings and is doing additional testing to further evaluate that location.
   Braswell said that from his understanding, Wal-Mart does not want all of the North American property. "They just want to take about half of the footprint where the old building used to be. The power plant in back is an issue, so they had approached Solid Waste about the demolition of that. It would be fairly expensive because there are some solid waste issues."
   Larry Gilliam, director, Division of Solid Waste, said the site could be eligible for Brownfield designation if sold to a third party such as Wal-Mart. Brownfield designation helps take what Gilliam calls "white elephant-type property" which people perceive as being contaminated beyond use, and put it back into productivity.
   "Seldom, I guess, is it the case that you can't clean up something to where it can be safely and environmentally reused for other uses. From that standpoint, if they're seriously considering coming in and buying a portion of that property, which I understand is what they're maybe talking about, I'm sure their (consultants') role is to determine if there is any contamination left on the site," Gilliam said.
   Information received from swab tests in the building indicate there is no serious problem remaining on that part, he said. As part of closure of a sludge lagoon that used to be part of the old wastewater treatment plant, "we required them to do groundwater monitoring from selected wells for four quarters. The second set of data ought to be coming in. The first set didn't show a great deal of problems. It showed some elevated sulfates, but other than that it didn't really show anything else," he said.
   One benefit of the SuperCenter proposal is that the majority of the area would be used for parking, Gilliam said. "One of the most protective mechanisms that you can have in an area that you don't want to have a lot of surface water percolating down through, is to put either a concrete or asphalt-type cap.
   "Another bonus that I would see, too, is that the power plant, which still has some encapsulated asbestos around the old boiler, would have to be torn down and managed off site, which it would be good to get that thing out of there," Gilliam said.
   Removal and disposal of asbestos from the power plant would be labor intensive and would come with a substantial price tag, according to Gilliam.
   However, he said, "It's an old industrial site that probably with some remediation possibly could be put right back into productive use and I think that would be a good strategy for that site."
   North American's owner, Charles Green, said that while there is still discussion with Wal-Mart, there is "nothing definitive at this particular time. As far as I know, they're still looking at our location but nothing has been definitely decided."
   Green said he believes the coming of the SuperCenter also could hinge on what kind of contribution the city would be willing to make in terms of getting the center here.
   "I think the Wal-Mart people told me there was a small town, smaller than Elizabethton, that may actually end up floating a bond issue of somewhere around $2.5 million to help them with infrastructure -- sewage and all of the other various utilities -- in preparation of the location they were going to put a facility at. Naturally, Wal-Mart had to make a commitment to them that they would be there for some period of time.
   "Wal-Mart right now, to my understanding, generates about $600,000 to $700,000 a year in sales tax and if they were to get a Super Wal-Mart, I'm told that that number would go to about $1.2 million to $1.3 million in sales tax, plus they would employ about 400 to 500 people," Green said.
   "Between all that, it would certainly pay the city to try to attract them, because they're going to go somewhere. If they don't go in to the city, then the city will end up losing the sales tax and the property tax also. I'm sure they'd probably have to do something to help on the property tax like they've done with some of the other industries here in town."
   Green said the power plant might have to be demolished, depending on how the SuperCenter would be situated.
   The Star recently received an e-mail from a Florida firm which said one of its clients was investing in opportunities to acquire some of the assets of North American Rayon -- apparently the power plant -- but believed that NAR either was filing or had filed for bankruptcy protection.
   "That's all garbage," Green said. "There's nothing to that. North American is not on the verge of filing any bankruptcy. North American is solid financially.
   "There was a group that at one time was working on a rotary cascading bit boiler, but that has nothing to do with the power plant. ... Basically what happened, the fellow gave the money to the Chinese to develop a similar process over there, so that's a dead issue.
   "There may be someone interested in a rotary cascading bit boiler but they're not interested in the powerhouse. They'd had to have lost their ever-loving mind. But if they're interested in it, I'd be glad to give it to them," he said.
   Of Wal-Mart's future plans, Green said, "Until they actually make up their mind what they want to do, they're not going to tell either you or me."
   According to City Manager Charles Stahl, Wal-Mart is the seventh principal taxpayer in the city and the largest generator of sales tax to the community.
   "They obviously are a very significant business in this community and they are obviously a business a cross-section of the community patronizes at some time," Stahl said.