Jan 30, 2007

Lynchburg grows, full steam ahead

by Erin Fitch, News Reporter
“We used to build civilizations,” Bill Bryce penned in his 1991 book, Neither Here Nor There. “Now we build shopping malls.”

When Kohl’s Department Store and Old Navy opened their doors last year, the Wards Road district was saluted once again as Lynchburg’s “shopping area.” As a result, many Liberty students are content to stay in Lynchburg for their shopping trips, rather than make the long commute to other cities.

“The growth around the school is good for LU,” said Vice-Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr.

“I think the development… is evidence of a strong and vibrant local economy and I think LU is a major contributor to the strength of the local economy.”

“I have shopped at both the stores,” said senior Joellyn France.

“I used to drive to Roanoke before they opened here.”

 But while many at Liberty are excited about the new stores, the proposed development of one in particular has been a source of heated contention everywhere else.

The drawback to the location of the stores on Wards Road is the high amount of traffic in the area, much of which is all headed towards — yes, you guessed it — Wal-Mart.

If you have been to Wal-Mart (what LU student can say he or she hasn’t?), then you know how busy it is.

Senior Becky Williams does not brave the long lines for her shopping list. “I go to Target. I don’t even go to Wal-Mart because it’s so crowded.”

City manager Kimball Payne says that Wal-Mart has been searching for a site to put another store in Lynchburg for over three years.

“The store on Wards Road is very, very busy,” said Payne. “There’s enough activity that Wal-Mart has said they can afford to put in another store to absorb the activity.”

But when Wal-Mart store developers finally found a potential site at the Forest Plaza West shopping center at Old Forest Road, several citizens protested the pending deal.

In an editorial titled “Memo to Wal-Mart: Please Don’t Do This,” published by the News & Advance earlier this month, the writer encouraged Lynchburg to consider not just the inordinate amount of Wal-Mart traffic clogging the arteries of Old Forest Road and Lakeside Drive, but also the “aesthetic monstrosity” the site would add to the city view.

Senior Amy Brucker agrees with the editorialist’s stance, but for different reasons. If Wal-Mart purchased the property at Forest Plaza West, the existing small businesses would be forced to move, including popular eateries such as Isabella’s, the Madison Avenue Deli and Jazz Street Grill.

“It makes me upset,” said Brucker. “I feel bad for the business owners who have to relocate. I don’t even see how a Wal-Mart would fit in that area.”

 Several store owners and employees are already weighing their options for the future should Wal-Mart succeed in developing the property.

Jessica Dunn, 23, a server at Jazz Street Grill, appears hopeful when asked about the restaurant’s next move.

“If Wal-Mart moves in, they’ll buy us out of our lease, and we want to be able to have a place to go straight into,” she said.

 She added that moving would give the 13 year-old establishment a chance to get more space in a bigger facility.

“I’m confident that our regulars would stay,” said Dunn.

“Some of them have been coming here as long as we’ve been open.”

Though he doesn’t necessarily agree that the property should be kept from Wal-Mart, Payne shows much concern for the small businesses.

“We’ve got to accommodate them in the rest of the city,” he said.

And to those critics of the venture, Payne said, “They probably don’t understand the big picture, though I appreciate their position.”

So what is the big picture? As city manager, Payne struggles with a city that suffers from not just expenses but also a high demand for services, many of which go to assist the 16 percent of Lynchburg’s population that is in poverty. The increase in economic development projects and retail space would add much-needed sales and real estate tax revenue the city desperately needs.

“My goal is to have the city develop as densely as it can, to as high a degree as it can, to add as much value to the land as it can, generating revenue so we can do all the things we’re being asked to do,” said Payne. “Denser is better, more people is better, more activity is better — we are a city.”
Although the addition of stores such as Kohl’s and Old Navy are exciting changes to the landscape of Wards Road, they are technically located in Campbell County, which means their tax money will not be going to serve the city of Lynchburg. However, an ambitious list of new developments is peeking above the horizon to help further Payne’s goals.

For starters, an upscale loft apartment site, called City Market Lofts, is due to open this month downtown.

When completed, the 59-unit complex will not only will generate valuable real-estate tax for the city, but it will also testify to the benefits of redeveloping the historic buildings it occupies.

Plans are also in order to build what Payne calls a “lifestyle” or “pedestrian” center at the corner of the Lynchburg Expressway and Lakeside Drive. This shopping center would be “a mall without the roof,” said Payne, covering one million square feet, and is proposed to include a Target, a multiplex cinema with stadium seating, Lowe’s and more.

The new center would re-route much of the shopping traffic away from Wards Road, which would mandate an overhaul of the current road system, a project that could cost up to $20 million.
However, would such a costly endeavor be worth it? Though she is opposed to the new location of Wal-Mart, Brucker seems to think so.

“I would love to see more shopping centers,” she said. “LU benefits because more students would come in, there’s more activity going on in the town, and students would be able to find more jobs.”
But ultimately, Falwell Jr. foresees more than just a fiscal advantage to the development of the city. “The growth rate of both Lynchburg and Liberty will continue to accelerate and Liberty will become more and more of a positive influence on the region—spiritually, economically and culturally,” he said.

Contact Erin Fitch at eefitch@liberty.edu.

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