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Wal-Mart and the West End would be a good match.

Web posted on February 22, 2001

In My Opinion
By Ben Bennett

Just when it seemed the Wal-Mart issue was going to be quiet for a while, it has raised its head again at the Guelph Council table. The reason is the recent change in a number of circumstances.

The first change is that after much cajoling and legal activity at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and in the courts of Ontario, Wal-Mart has agreed to reveal its sales figures. Now an assessment can be made of the possible impact on Guelph's retail sector of the proposed big box stores - Wal-Mart in the 6&7 proposal for Woodlawn and Woolwich, Zellers in the University of Guelph proposal for Stone Road.

There is only so much money that Guelph consumers can spend. So, if it is determined by the market experts that bringing in one or both of these stores to areas which are not commercially zoned will hurt the existing shopping centres, the Official Plan says they should not be allowed.

The second change is that the shopping centre in the city's west end, at Imperial and Paisley roads, now has a major tenant - Zehrs. A huge supermarket (a big box) will be built there later this year, establishing, no doubt, a shopping pattern and adding a lot of reasons to the argument that any other new big box store should be built in this location. The Official Plan, which is designed to predict where amenities and services will be needed, determined a lot time ago that there should be a major shopping centre in the west end to serve the more than 20,000 people who live there.

Another change is that the OMB has approved the construction of a Canadian Tire big box store on Stone Road and that store will eat into the potential sales pie provided by Guelph consumers. There is a very large overlap between products sold at Canadian Tire and products sold at Wal-mart and Zellers.

The final change is that we have a new council and the OMB wants to be sure that the City's position is based on current information. As was pointed at Monday night's (February 19) council meeting, the previous council did not have up-to-date information. Indeed, it was under the impression that there was a grocery store tenant in the Woolwich/Woodlawn proposal and it is clear now there is not. Armel, the developer of the west end shopping centre has won that one.

The need for a grocery store in the north end was used by some councillors as the basis for their flip-flop on the big box issue. (They had turned both developments down in 1997).

City council, therefore, has agreed to avail itself of new information which will soon become available about the impact of the proposed stores and will likely hold another public session to gauge the residents' views.

We can expect Councillor Birtwistle to reaffirm his support for Wal-Mart, but as a representative of the west end residents, it would make sense that he urge the US discount store to locate with Zehrs in the Armel centre, rather than endorse a Wal-Mart "island" in the north end. The north end residents need a place to buy groceries, and if they can't buy the consumer goods they want at Canadian Tire or Zellers in Willow West Mall, they would likely not mind driving across to a Wal-Mart in the west end.

Given the increasing concerns about air quality, there is not much sense in forcing 20,000 people in the west end to drive to two places for their shopping. Wal-Mart could start building in the west end tomorrow. It's already zoned.

As for Zellers, I'd like to cover that issue in a future column.

Ben Bennett is representing Residents for Sustainable Development in Guelph at the OMB.