Wal-Mart considers new store in Chester

CHESTER -- Wal-Mart is eyeing Chester for a Supercenter that could bring several hundred jobs to the area, a spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

The retail giant is considering building a store on a 33-acre site along the J.A. Cochran Bypass across from the old Chester mall, according to an e-mail from spokeswoman Tara Stewart.

The company has not purchased the land, owned by the L&C Development Corp., but it applied last month for a permit to fill some wetlands on the site.

Wal-Mart's Supercenters range from 100,000 to 195,000 square feet and an average store brings 300 to 400 jobs, Stewart said in the e-mail. The features of Supercenters vary -- "we'll know more when we are further along in the process," Stewart said -- and building a store takes about 10 to 12 months once all permits have been obtained. Staffing and opening a store takes another three to four months.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is sorting through comments and concerns about the application, said Les Parker, a corps project manager. The corps will evaluate the application with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to make sure the project complies with federal and state laws.

If a project involves filling in wetlands, the builder must create or protect wetlands somewhere else to offset the environmental impact.

'Spark' for neighbors

Should the store be built, it would be an economic benefit for the land across the street, said Charles Mixon of BroCo Properties, the Atlanta developing firm that bought the old mall nearly a year ago.

"The spark is going to be when Wal-Mart announces (it's building there)," Mixon said. "Wal-Mart has got that 'Field of Dreams' philosophy... 'If you build it, they will come.'"

He said tenants will want to buy lots across the street once they know Wal-Mart is coming. He said BroCo Properties will probably demolish the old mall sometime next year and divide the 13 acres into retail and office spaces.

He envisions the property sporting a bank and restaurants such as Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar or Chili's Bar & Grill. Mixon also sees businesses like a hardware store or insurance office locating there.

"The community is poised for growth," he said. "It's got all the ingredients to explode."

But Chester County's growth hasn't arrived yet. The county's population is actually decreasing, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census. The county also has the second-worst unemployment rate in the state, suffering from industries that have gone elsewhere in recent years.

"We don't have the magic number for Applebee's and Firebonz and all those (restaurants) to come right now," Chester County Economic Development Director Karlisa Parker said of the local demographics. She added that the county hasn't seen the "one dramatic occurrence that changes all that."

Although she hasn't seen an increased interest in J.A. Cochran Bypass property, Parker said "there's an increased interest in the county overall."

Proposed housing developments such as Montrose Plantation, Courtney on the Catawba in Fort Lawn and the Lando project could dramatically boost county growth. Projections show Montrose could bring 10,000 residents over the next 10 to 20 years, and Courtney could spring 750 homes. Lando homes could be built within a year.

"I think Chester's time is coming," Parker said. "But it's, 'Can you wait long enough for that?'"

Both Mixon and Stewart are sure of their companies' research.

When asked why Wal-Mart is interested in building a Supercenter in Chester, a place that already has a smaller store and shrinking population, Stewart said: "We have opened Supercenters since 1986, and to date not one has closed. We have extensive research and are confident before we build a store of its success."

BroCo Properties' Web site boasts of developing projects in smaller Southeastern cities and towns.

"We know small communities like Chester," Mixon said. "Chester is headed in the right direction and on the move."