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Cottage Grove 'not in the plan' for Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart has no plans to locate a new store in Cottage Grove, a company spokesperson said last week, a development that could derail plans for a retail center informally proposed to city officials last fall.

The disclosure by the Bentonville, Ark.,-based discount retailer appears to contradict what PariPassu Companies told Cottage Grove Economic Development Authority and City Council members last September. Then, representatives from the Minneapolis-based developer revealed plans for a roughly 700,000-square-foot retail development proposed for the Cottage View Drive-In site, saying it would include a Wal-Mart Supercenter while declining to reveal other interested tenants.

The Wal-Mart was a must-have feature of the plan, PariPassu's Jim Lockhart said in interviews last autumn, needed to generate the necessary traffic to ensure the center's viability.

Lisa Nelson, Wal-Mart's senior manager of public affairs and government relations for Minnesota and Wisconsin, did not return multiple telephone messages. But in an e-mail, the spokeswoman said, "I've confirmed again, we don't have a project there. It's possible there is a developer HOPING [sic] to have a Wal-Mart as part of a development, which is sometimes the case.

"But Cottage Grove has not recently been, and is not currently, in the plan."

'We were working hand-in-hand'

It's news to officials at Cottage Grove City Hall, who have met only informally with PariPassu over the past eight months while awaiting a formal proposal from the developer. Last fall, they were told Wal-Mart was keen on the proposed site -- and not an alternate locale on the Majestic Ballroom land suggested by some -- sparking debate over whether or not the city wanted to see the ubiquitous discount chain move into town.

"I don't know what to say about it; we haven't talked to Wal-Mart ourselves and we're waiting for the developer to take the lead on whatever is going to happen there," said city administrator Ryan Schroeder.

PariPassu's preliminary concept plans showed a 193,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter as the anchor for the 94-acre site. But as the retail market and national economy has taken a turn for the worse, the discount giant announced late last year it planned to roll back the number of new stores nationwide. But Cottage Grove wasn't among those prospective stores postponed, Nelson said, because it was never planned.

PariPassu project manager Jonathan Lockhart insisted, though, that Wal-Mart -- which currently has 39 Supercenters, 21 discount stores, 13 Sams's Club wholesalers and one distribution center in Minnesota -- engaged in more than just token talks with PariPassu about the proposed Cottage View retail development.

"Wal-Mart is pulling back nationally, but we were working hand-in-hand with Wal-Mart on the site," Jonathan Lockhart said. "I'm not going to get into a word war with whatever Wal-Mart says there."

Later, he added, "Wal-Mart is very sensitive about what people say in the media about them; I would feel comfortable to say we were working with them, but I don't want to get too far into how closely we were working with them."

City officials were certainly given the impression PariPassu was working with Wal-Mart.

"Back in October, I think there was some indication that there was some level of interest from Wal-Mart," Schroeder said. The retailer says there wasn't.

Wal-Mart, though, never told PariPassu outright that it wasn't interested, Jonathan Lockhart asserted.

"Communication slowed kind of dramatically, but we were never given a definitive answer as to their direction," he said. "You can read between the lines."

City won't push Cottage View redevelopment

Without Wal-Mart or another principal tenant, the project is stalled. But Cottage Grove's director of community development Howard Blin said this spring he doesn't expect to receive a formal proposal from PariPassu for perhaps a year, anyway.

Some, too, have worried openly that perhaps now isn't the right time for such an ambitious project. Outgoing Mayor Sandy Shiely, for instance, has expressed concern on multiple occasions that talk of retail redevelopment on the 42-year-old drive-in theater site is premature with slower-than-expected development in the long-planned East Ravine area north of Highway 61.

"We really approached this site as a good long-term development site for us. We're not going to push this site prematurely," Schroeder said. "If someone comes to us with a pre-packaged project, we'll look at it. But we're not pushing for development (on the Cottage View site). It'll be there."

When, exactly, is the question.

The project's timeline "is entirely market-driven," Jonathan Lockhart explained. "We're not going to submit a formal proposal to the city without our anchor tenants committed, and I don't think the city would want that."

In the past, developers and retailers operated under a "build it and they will come" mentality, Schroeder said, meaning both sides were willing to take more chances on building large retail developments across the Twin Cities that likely wouldn't come to fruition under current market conditions.

Today, retailers and developers alike, Schroeder said, are more interested in certainty.

That makes PariPassu's task of finding a new anchor tenant for what they envision as a bustling retail hub at the intersection of Highway 61 and County Road 19 that much more difficult. Though Lockhart assures, "We're still going to move forward with the project."

But, "the retailers are becoming much more selective in the locations they're choosing to open (new stores)," he said. "That's the trend we're seeing."

In the meantime, Mann Theatres continues to operate the four-decades-old drive-in, which opened for the season April 18. It's a classic venue in perpetual limbo, its owners, Herringer Companies, unwilling to invest much into the aging operation they say has been on its last legs for years.

How long can the rusting red sign and faded white screen survive before it gets steamrolled by retail development? It's anybody's guess, those involved say.

The economy and retail market has "pushed back the timeline for a lot of things a lot of folks developed," Schroeder said. "If this site is included, I don't know."

Jon Avise can be reached at javise@swcbulletin.com.

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