Residents weigh in on Wal-Mart's plans for Dacula supercenter

DACULA - Billy Knight is happy his hometown is poised to get a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Instead of having to drive up to 45 minutes to buy groceries, he'll be able to go a few hundred yards to a retail development proposed for Harbins Road near Ga. Highway 316.

"I think we need it," Knight said of the 24-hour Wal-Mart that would occupy 48 heavily wooded acres across from his home and grave marker business, Knight Monument.

"It takes us a long time to get to the grocery store, and we don't have anything but one service station," Knight said Monday afternoon as he left Dacula City Hall with his family.

Peter Thakkar was leery of the giant retailer's plans. He owns one of the few gas stations in Dacula: Kwick Check BP at Harbins Road and Winder Highway.

"It's good for the people of Dacula. It's bad for the small mom-and-pop business owners," Thakkar said as he scanned a site plan showing the development's layout. "They drive them out of business."

The Dacula resident said he fears that, because of its size, Wal-Mart will be able to charge less for its gas - a strategy he said the company uses to lure shoppers to its stores.

Like Knight, Thakkar trekked to City Hall on Monday for an open house that Wal-Mart representatives held from noon to 2 p.m.

The meeting, which allowed a few dozen residents to ask questions about the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer's plans, comes two weeks before city officials will consider a rezoning sought by the company that seems to have a laser-beam focus on Gwinnett County.

It has opened several new stores here since 2003, with No. 12 under construction in the Hamilton Mill area east of Buford. Its cash registers should fire up this fall.

The most recent to open was in January in the Centerville area south of Snellville.

While those stores top 200,000 square feet, the Dacula store would encompass 184,212 square feet. Land between the store and Harbins Road would be carved into five smaller parcels, which the retailer would sell or lease to smaller businesses like banks or fast-food joints.

It is unknown at this time if the Wal-Mart will include gas pumps - something that disheartened Thakkar.

The land coveted by Wal-Mart is a few hundred yards from Ga. 316. Horse farms occupy land across from it and line Harbins Road heading away from the highway.

A man on a tractor worked in patch of dirt Monday afternoon a few driveways down from the Wal-Mart site, while small corn plants sprouted beside the road one property over.

During the morning and evening rush hours, roads in the area flood with motorists, with Gwinnett's rapid growth promising to deliver more as subdivisions replace the pastoral setting.

That growth is what lured Wal-Mart to Dacula, said company spokesman Glen Wilkins.

"We follow the growth and rooftops keep springing up over here," Wilkins said. "We respond to the needs of the community."

The new store would also help take pressure off existing stores in Lawrenceville and Winder and reduce checkout times there, Wilkins said. No existing stores will close because of the new supercenter, he said.

Traffic is the biggest concern residents have expressed about the store, officials said.

Dacula Councilman Gregory Reeves said he's fielded seven phone calls from people voicing discontent with the potential traffic impact. Reeves said he has no questions about Wal-Mart's proposal.

Mayor Jimmy Wilbanks was hesitant to speak about it. He said he tries not to get involved with rezonings before they reach the City Council.

"I'm sure some people will be for it and some will be against it," said Wilbanks, who greeted people as they arrived at the open house.

He said he would like for Wal-Mart to hold a night session so more people can attend. County Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said likewise.

Wal-Mart's plans call for a turn lane in front of the store, Wilkins said. It is awaiting traffic studies that might reveal the need for other road improvements, he said.

The land is now zoned for industrial and some commercial use. Wal-Mart, which has a contract to buy it, wants it rezoned for a different commercial use.

The city Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the rezoning on May 30. The City Council is slated to hold another public hearing and take a final vote June 1.