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Wal-Mart won't build in Duluth
Company withdraws plans for new store in city

LAWRENCEVILLE - Wal-Mart has withdrawn its plans to build a controversial store in Duluth.

Since June, residents have been trying to stop the retailer from building a 176,000-square-foot store on 32 acres at the corner of Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Chattahoochee Drive. Thursday, they said they were elated to learn that it would not be built.

"I think it's wonderful," Smart Growth Gwinnett vice president Phyllis West said. "I thought if we kept at it, something would happen. I might even become a shopper again."

Glen Wilkins, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the decision not to build the store rested on both a corporate edict to slow the development of Supercenters and actions taken by Duluth, which kept construction from being able to take place until late January.

"If not for the delays imposed by the city of Duluth, we may have been able to move forward with a store there at that location," Wilkins said. "We did have the right to go and collect permits on this store."

Last summer, the city put a moratorium on big-box development that kept Wal-Mart from gaining permission to build the Supercenter. That moratorium was lifted in December, and in January, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals approved requests by the company to change the location of a landscape strip, reduce the number of parking spaces, allow 60 percent of the roof to be flat and eliminate some window requirements.

However, the store was denied the right to use a synthetic brick on two of the building's sides and was required to change the building height and look on those sides every 100 feet, a move that would increase the cost to build the project.

Wilkins said he had an estimate of how much money Wal-Mart had spent to this point to have the store approved, but that he could not release the amount because it was proprietary.

Not building at the site was a business decision, he said, and not related to the hundreds of Duluth residents who protested the store's location. He said there are no immediate plans to look for other locations for stores in the area.

There are currently other Wal-Mart stores in Suwanee and on Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth.

"I think they made a smart decision," West said. "With the economy, it might not be a smart decision to put one next to another one."

Other residents and members of Smart Growth Gwinnett, a community group created in opposition to Wal-Mart and to promote a small-town feel in the city, also said they were thrilled with the decision.

"Smart Growth Gwinnett has always believed that this property is not appropriate for a 24-hour big box. Our organization is pleased for the citizens of Duluth and surrounding areas," said Ed Wilson the president of Smart Growth Gwinnett.

Marline Santiago-Cook said she was excited, but not surprised.

"I expected something like this to happen," she said. "This was not impossible. The chances were considered low, but we did have a chance."

Wilkins said in a press release that he appreciated the relationship the retailer had forged with Duluth's planning department and thinks the city is a good place to do business. Phil McLemore, Duluth's administrator, said it was the city's goal to be fair to both Wal-Mart and residents in the process.

"We did not prohibit Wal-Mart, but we provided additional protections for the community," McLemore said. "It's a business decision on their part and I respect that decision. For the citizens that opposed it, this is good news for them. The property owner probably has a different feeling."

The property owner is Jack Bandy, and two lawsuits he has brought against Duluth mean that despite Wal-Mart's decision not to build on the land, the saga involving the retailer will continue.

Bandy sued the city regarding the moratorium, and that suit has a trial date set for Sept. 15. Lee Thompson, Duluth's city attorney, said no action has been taken on a second suit, which requested that a judge overturn the Zoning Board of Appeal's initial decision to hear variance requests instead of allowing the planning director to make those decisions. It will have a pretrial hearing in June.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, Bandy's attorney, did not return several phone calls seeking comment about the suits. Thompson said he thinks because the moratorium was lifted, the first lawsuit is moot.

"I don't think there's an issue in that anymore," he said.