Can Walmart Restore the Town Centers It Helped to Kill?


Ask many of your neighbors, and they’ll tell you no one is more responsible for the demise of Main Street businesses than the big box stores that undercut them on price and buy-it-all-in-one-place convenience. But now, one supercenter seems to miss the mom-and-pops they arguably helped to make extinct—or at least, they miss the kind of town centers that those small businesses used to anchor. And they’ve announced plans to help bring the cozy town square back in a bold new form.

That’s right: according to a new article from Talk Business and Politics, retail giant Walmart has announced plans to develop the parking lots and adjacent greenfield space near some of their stores into walkable, diverse business centers that “combines entertainment venues, local food vendors, health and fitness services and recreational opportunities in a way that connects and engages the community.” Early artist renderings for a Rogers, AR location show something between a Disney-style mini town and a strip mall, albeit with a little extra green space and some gathering spaces where there’d usually be an uninterrupted sea of parking.

Strong Towns staffers Kea and Jacob have different takes on this project, and in this episode of Upzoned, they dig deep to hash it out. ST Community Builder (and former corner store owner) Jacob is optimistic that Walmart is finally turning away from the giant parking lots that have been its signature and is thinking of innovative new ways to put that land to productive use. Upzoned host (and former small bookstore worker) Kea is less sure that building a miniaturized town “center” all at once at the whim of a single corporation is all that much less fragile than the lots they’ll be replacing. Jacob is excited that wellness services and social spaces will be deliberately situated right by the big box rather than marooning superstores that many rely on out on the edge of town; Kea shares why she’s skeptical that residents will treat their face-lifted Walmart like a real third place destination rather than grabbing their same old groceries from the superstore and getting right back in their cars—because she’s seen projects like this fail firsthand.

Then in the downzone, Kea talks about the new docuseries Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat that’s inspiring her to re-think how we can build strong towns with a diversified array of industries while still preserving artisan food traditions that have anchored communities for generations. And Jacob talks his favorite recent reads: Dying and Living in the Neighborhood by Prabhjot Singh, and Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in the Neighborhood by Michael Ruhlman.

Top image via Creative Commons.