July 01--Seven months after it called retreat from a contentious plan to build a new store in the Bel Air South area, Walmart has signaled it will expand its existing store in Abingdon's Constant Friendship business community, something company representatives had previously claimed couldn't be done.
The giant retailer plans to add about 50,178 square feet to the store, according to a request submitted to the Harford County Department of Planning and Zoning.
A community input meeting on the expansion will be held at 6:30 p.m. on July 21 at the Richlin Ballroom in Edgewood.
Walmart announced last November that it decided not to move forward with building the controversial new store at Route 924 and Plumtree Road, ending a three and a half year battle with community opponents, who formed the Bel Air South Community Foundation to fight the project.
At the time the project was abandoned, final county government approval for the new store had been stalled for over a year over a number of issues, most prominently millions of dollars of off-site road improvements the county wanted, but at which the company balked.
Although it would have been built in a fairly saturated commercial area, the opponents claimed a store the scale of what Walmart planned at Bel Air South would have exacerbated traffic congestion on Route 924.
They urged company officials to expand the 25-plus year-old Constant Friendship store, but company representatives claimed that wouldn't be feasible. They not only rebuffed community leaders, but also then County Executive David Craig and other local elected officials, who likewise pushed for the expansion alternative.
Joseph Snee, a Bel Air lawyer who represents Walmart locally, acknowledged the expansion plan and referred questions to the company.
In an emailed statement Thursday, Phillip Keene, director of corporate communications for Walmart, wrote:
"At Walmart, we work hard every day to provide a pleasurable shopping experience for our customers. The improvements we have planned for the Abingdon store represent Walmart's reinvestment in our associates, customers, and the community."
"The store will have a fresh look, as we will be working to improve not only the interior of the store, but also the exterior," he continued. "The upcoming renovations will offer our customers more convenience and choices and better their shopping experience."
Reaction from Bel Air South community leaders was predictably positive.
"It's like they are finally waking up and listening," Bill Wehland, one of the foundation organizers, said with a laugh about Walmart's change of plans.
A preliminary site plan shows the 137,449-square-foot store, which is off of Constant Friendship Boulevard near Route 24, would grow to 187,627 square feet.
The company had planned a similar sized store on the Plumtree site. The expanded Abingdon store will be about 24,000 square feet larger than the Fallston Walmart that opened in 2011.
The Constant Friendship store was built in 1993 and does not offer groceries, unlike Walmart's other two Harford County locations in Aberdeen and Fallston.
The smallness of the Abingdon store, built before Walmart made a big move into the grocery business in the 2000s, was cited by the company as a main driver of its desire to abandon that store and move to the Plumtree Road property, about three miles north on Route 24. Conversely, Walmart previously expanded its Aberdeen store, built after the Abingdon store, to accommodate groceries.
"I think that the public will be really happy that they are going to make a store improvement," Steve Tobia, another Bel Air South Foundation organizer, said. "I think that it is in their business interest to just build a new store, but with that not, apparently, being an option, I think that is really good that their back-up plan is to expand their existing store -- one, because I think that is a better location, being close to the interstate and serving more communities, and, two, it will prevent the possibility of a large building being vacant."
Wehland forwarded The Aegis a copy of a letter he had sent to Walmart in 2013 pointing out how the store could grow to the rear, based on an original 1992 plan for the store. Company representatives said that idea wouldn't work, if for no other reason than they couldn't afford to shut down the store while it was being expanded.
Wehland said he found it "interesting" that the company now wants to expand at Abingdon.
"I am pleased to see that they are going to do it, because if they want to make that a larger store, that is all well and good," he said. "It was interesting, though, how they told us so much why they couldn't do it."
A few customers shopping at Abingdon Walmart Thursday morning did not have strong feelings about the possibility of the store expanding.
"I don't care if they do or don't," Veneria Williams, of Edgewood, said, explaining she goes to Walmart because it is convenient, but she also saw a documentary showing the company treats its workers poorly.
"Walmart's OK for me. One thing I don't like is how they treat their workers overseas," she said. "I think they could pay people more."
Tracie Pierce, of Abingdon, said she is glad the store did not move to Bel Air South because of the traffic impact. She did not feel strongly about the planned expansion at Constant Friendship, but said it made sense.
"If you're here, you might as well stay here," she said.
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