The Bossier City Council voted to rezone the land at Wemple Road and Airline Drive from Residential/Agriculture (R/A) to B-3 at its regular meeting Tuesday afternoon, which paves the way for the much debated new Walmart Supercenter store in north Bossier.
The vote came amidst continued public outcry from residents surrounding the development — their main concerns being traffic, crime, and a decrease in home values.
Resident Kyle Sawyer passionately addressed the council and told how the existing Walmart store recently had an incident of a purse snatching of a 70-year-old woman and said, “that sort of thing happens and will go on near where we live.”
His sentiments were echoed by Howard Davis, Providence Classical Academy headmaster, saying, “If you don’t think (crime) is going to affect this store, you’re playing games with yourself.”
Sawyer went on to say the roads won’t be able to handle the increased traffic, “Not everyone is going to go down Airline…They’re going to take the path of least resistance.”
Davis told the council how in a meeting with Bossier Parish Engineer Butch Ford, Davis would told Wemple Road won’t be three-laned, and as more business open it will only exacerbate traffic problems.
The council restated several compromises and concessions agreed to by the retailer that will address these concerns, including Walmart providing $200,000 to go towards the widening of Wemple Road, an 18-hour operation time, a school zone for Providence Classical Academy on Wemple road, landscaping, alternative routes to direct truck traffic off Wemple Road, and a fence in the rear of the store facing residential developments.
Councilman Tim Larkin stated that $3.6 million in investment would be made on the property, with $1.6 M going to road improvements.
Neil Erwin, special legal counsel for the city regarding this issue, told the council that when it pertains to the concessions, Walmart would be bound to make them. He said that when Walmart made a site plan and the rezoning approval is conditional upon that plan, Walmart will have to perform those improvements or come back before city council as the approval would be void.
“We don’t want to hear they want to do it, we want to hear it’s legally binding they will do it,” said Bossier City Council President David Montgomery.
Attention was also paid to the potential closure of the current store on Airline Drive.
Bossier Metropolitan Planning Commission Director Sam Marsiglia told the council that even though Walmart officials have stated the current store as it is the fifth highest performing store in the state, it would be hard to get anything “in writing” regarding certainty the current store would remain open.
“You can’t get a written guarantee from a retailer, but that store will never close. They’ve stated in public multiple times they have no plans to close that store,” Marsiglia assured the council.
Councilman Tommy Harvey read a letter from Walmart officials to Mayor Lorenz Walker that assured the current store would remain open. Harvey himself had concerns it would be “a vacant building and eyesore.”
He pointed out Kroger said it would keep its Benton Road store open along with its new development on Airline and the Benton Road store closed. He noted how those former shoppers now have to travel further to reach the current Walmart store and if that were to close, those residents’ options would be even more limited with more distance to travel and no bus service to the new store.
In a previous meeting regarding the new Walmart development, officials had said that failure to protect the current tax base by refusal of land annexation for the new store could result in the current store closing, which would reduce enough funds that would it translate to the elimination of roughly two dozen public safety — police and fire — positions.
Montgomery said the council has an obligation to protect the assets of Bossier City, which includes annexing land for a new development and seeing through development that will increase or protect its tax base.
Erwin agreed, saying the issues raised by parish residents are similar to others issues faced in previous rezonings.
“You’ve had to deal with those many times and you can weigh those now. Will this be a detriment to the community or benefit it?”
Bossier City Attorney Jimmy Hall was more defiant and clear in his stance, saying this opposition is a “specific attack on Walmart” generated by reasons that “border on arbitrary and capricious.”
“There’s a lot of things we approve that people don’t like. This seems to be specific to Walmart,” Hall summarized.
Councilman Jeff Darby pointed out that Bossier City had recently lost a retailer and that this new Walmart store would benefit the community by adding what Walmart officials estimate at 300-350 jobs.
In the end, the only votes against the rezoning were by Tommy Harvey while Jeff Free abstained.