Wal-Mart wins Middle Valley zoning battle

Attendees watch as commissioners vote 5-4 in favor of a zoning change which will allow a Wal-Mart grocery store to be built at the corner of Thrasher Pike and Middle Valley Road.
photo Attendees watch as commissioners vote 5-4 in favor of a zoning change which will allow a Wal-Mart grocery store to be built at the corner of Thrasher Pike and Middle Valley Road.

HOW THEY VOTED

This is the record of how commissioners voted on the zoning change at Thrasher Pike and Middle Valley Road: YES Chester Bankston Greg Beck Joe Graham Warren Mackey Jim Fields NO Tim Boyd Randy Fairbanks Marty Haynes Sabrena Smedley

The Hamilton County Commission sang happy birthday for Marty Haynes on Wednesday, but it didn't give him what he wanted.

Haynes opposed a controversial zoning change in his district that would open the door for a Wal-Mart grocery store to be built at the corner of Thrasher Pike and Middle Valley Road.

The project was strongly opposed by a band of residents who live near the proposed site. They cited traffic and crime concerns and perceived aesthetic damage to their community. Meanwhile, folks who live a few more miles away supported the store, saying it would add to county sales tax coffers and be a convenience for residents.

Haynes sided with the closer crowd. But five other commissioners overruled Haynes' wishes for the district he represents.

After hearing from Haynes, and a slew of residents who opposed the development, the commission voted 5-4 to approve the zoning change, siding with residents in support of the project and the developer, Hutton Co.

"I wasn't expecting it to go that way. But it did. We'll live with it and move forward," Haynes said after the meeting.

The standing-room-only crowd at the commission chamber Wednesday was a testament to how divisive an issue the proposed Wal-Mart has become. About half the crowd opposed the zoning change, and the other half appeared to be in favor.

"That was the tough part for me," Haynes said. "There was not a consensus either way."

Kristie Jackson, who lives just over two miles from the proposed site, supported the project. She said Middle Valley Road needs new development because it is "looking really run-down and ragged."

She also said those who live closest to proposed developments always oppose them.

"If we left it to them nothing would ever get built anywhere," Jackson said.

But in a tearful appeal to commissioners, resident Debbie McKinney invoked Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. Quoting from a biography entitled In Sam We Trust, she asked commissioners to vote down the proposed zoning change.

"If some community, for whatever reason, does not want us in there, we are not interested in going in and creating a fuss," McKinney quoted.

This zoning battle clearly caused "a fuss."

photo Matt Phillips, vice president of real estate for The Hutton Company, speaks in favor of a proposed Wal-Mart grocery store at the corner of Thrasher Pike and Middle Valley Road during a Hamilton County commission meeting Wednesday, March 4, 2015. Commissioners voted 5-4 in favor of a zoning change which will allow the proposed development to go forward.

Amanda Henneberg, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the community has spoken, and the store will stay.

"We have heard from neighbors, customers, and now the Hamilton County Commission -- all of whom support a Neighborhood Market store in Middle Valley," Henneberg said in an email. "We have a great customer base in the area, which is why the majority of residents are excited about our new store and what it has to offer."

Haynes said he expects the company has taken some new directions under current leadership. Walton died in 1992.

"I'm not sure the company that Sam Walton started has the same corporate philosophy [now]," Haynes said. "The interesting thing about this, looking at it, it appears that Wal-Mart is moving into this county and competing against itself. I'm not sure I understand the market strategy."

The company is opening a Supercenter at Highway 58 and North Hickory Valley Road, and zoning documents indicate other Neighborhood Market stores are planned in East Ridge, on East Brainerd Road and on Moore Road off Highway 153.

There are a total of 16 Wal-Mart stores within 30 miles of Chattanooga.

The Neighborhood Market model is much smaller than the standard Wal-Mart store. The 41,000-square-foot store in Hixson is slated to be no taller than a typical two-story house, and that square footage is one-quarter the size of a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Joe Graham, who represents District 6, supported the zoning change.

"This is a tough decision for all of us, but on the same token, it's a good problem to have. It's a good problem to have growing pains instead of just the opposite," Graham said.

But the retail giant has made concessions on store hours.

Matt Phillips, vice president of real estate for Hutton Co., said Wal-Mart has agreed to close the fueling station and convenience store planned for the site at 10 p.m., although the grocery store would remain open 24/7.

The store is expected to bring 200 construction jobs, and another 95 jobs once the store opens. Phillips said the average wage for hourly employees at the store is $12.71 with health care and benefits.

It's unclear when construction will begin, although a typical store takes nine months to build.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.