A super Wal-Mart won’t be so super for South Asheville

As a resident of South Asheville, I am deeply concerned. South Asheville is the most thriving sector of Buncombe County. It has developed tremendous schools, many comfortable neighborhoods, medical complexes and well-thought-out commercial facilities. Existing shopping establishments (many locally-owned) are very supportive of community residents. In short, it’s a well-planned place to live and work.

For many years, we in Asheville have heard continual talk about the need to bring higher-paying industrial jobs to town, to improve our economic well-being and stimulate growth. The acute lack of available sites for this purpose is also very well known.

We lost one South Asheville industrial site several months ago — the old Gerber plant, off Hendersonville Road — when it was rezoned from industrial to retail. This was approved quickly, mostly unnoticed by the public.

Why would anyone want to rid us of one of the few sites left in Asheville still available for potential new industry and higher-paying jobs?

It’s a shame that the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Department, the city’s economic-development director and the Buncombe County Commissioners can’t get together to find a potential use for this beautiful 50-acre industrial site.

I’m also very disappointed and perplexed to learn that Asheville city government is considering allowing a Super Wal-Mart (which would be three times the size of the one it would replace) to locate at the old Gerber facility — which will only perpetuate the preponderance of low-paying jobs.

I shudder to think of a Super Wal-Mart coming in and demolishing nearly half of the Gerber facility, leaving the remaining 450,000 square feet to be leased out to multiple tenants, along with a proposed additional 200,000-square-foot retail development. This 450,000 square feet of warehouse space will generate a tremendous amount of tractor-trailer traffic that Hendersonville and Sweeten Creek roads have never previously experienced (because, in the past, Gerber used this facility only for cold storage).

It is my understanding that the same developer who has contracted for the proposed Wal-Mart project at the Gerber site is also in line to demolish the Ball Glass plant, located across the street behind the Food Lion shopping center. The big picture here is that the developer plans to move the Volvo and Meritor industrial clients into the 450,000-square-foot warehouse space, tear down the Ball Glass plant and put in a home-improvement center (a la Home Depot or Lowe’s), across the road from the Super Wal-Mart center! This would create havoc and chaos for traffic on Hendersonville, Sweeten Creek, Mills Gap and Overlook roads.

The short section of Mills Gap Road already carries 9,000 vehicles per day, according to N.C. Department of Transportation traffic counts for last year.

This enormous proposed commercial development will create gridlock in all of South Asheville. On Hendersonville Road, for instance, there are already traffic lights at the entrances to the current Wal-Mart center, the Hollywood Cinemas, Turtle Creek Road, Overlook Road, the K-Mart and Bi-Lo entrance, Gerber Road and Mills Gap Road. Where is there any room for the additional turning lanes needed to support the tremendously increased traffic flow on this half-mile stretch, when you already have six traffic lights within one-and-a-half miles? And what about the increased traffic backup that would be caused by railroad trains crossing Mills Gap and Gerber roads?

According to the DOT, in 1995, Hendersonville Road had 21,800 cars per day. In 1999, the traffic count was 34,000 vehicles per day. That’s a 55 percent traffic increase in four years!

Take the residential explosion already happening in South Asheville, compound it with the proposed Super Wal-Mart and home-improvement-center facilities — and what do you think the traffic will be like on this four-lane road in the next few years?

Patton Avenue, which has six lanes, is now the second-busiest noninterstate road in all of North Carolina, with a traffic load of 45,000 cars per day. Given the rapid increase in traffic and development now occurring along Hendersonville Road in South Asheville, it too will be carrying 45,000 cars per day within the next four years.

What will these new developments do to the existing businesses along Hendersonville Road? There are already five grocery stores — Bi-Lo, GO, K-mart, Food Lion, and Ingles — within the same six-block area. Which ones will this Super Wal-Mart put out of business? What about our florists, small hardware suppliers, pet stores, optical centers, video-rental stores and other mom-and-pop businesses? It goes on and on. Where will the support be for the existing Asheville-based businesses, when a Super Wal-Mart is likely to contain all of the above and more?

Fact: Wal-Mart has two other locations being considered if this Hendersonville Road site does not pass. One is within the city limits and one is not. In the long run, Asheville will not lose any revenue on this venture because, sooner or later, even the county site will be annexed.

If intelligent choices are made, the Gerber manufacturing facility will be left intact to serve a manufacturer offering high-paying jobs in an attractive, already-existing industrial setting.

That will also eliminate any potential new gridlock on an already-busy Hendersonville Road, and help keep existing businesses from going under.

I seriously question why this rezoning occurred to begin with, when there is such a dire need for industrial sites.

[Laurel Eide has been active in the community on a variety of issues for the past six years. She now serves on the board of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods and can be contacted at 684-5777.]

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