The announcement last week that Walmart would be an anchor tenant of the proposed Dirigo Plaza shopping center is dredging up old, familiar feelings in Westbrook.

Following the news that the retailer would build a 155,000-square-foot store in the plaza destined for the Pike Industries property between Main Street and Larrabee Road, passionate discussion popped up on social media, the American Journal’s websites and within the community.

Many expressed disappointment with the announcement, with higher hopes for the project, and concern that the store would take customers away from small businesses.

However, those who have defended the project say Walmart, along with the other unnamed tenants at the plaza, would bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to Westbrook.

Veronica Bates, a Westbrook School Committee member who is administrator of a Westbrook community Facebook page, said this week that after reading the hundreds of comments posted to the site, she’s “torn.”

“I can see both sides,” she said. “Yes, it would bring jobs, but good ones? There are Walmart’s pretty close by.”
Walmart has stores in nearby Windham, Scarborough and Falmouth.
The tenant was revealed April 5 during a Planning Board review of the project, where an architect working on behalf of Walmart, Perry Petrillo, presented the building elevations. The building is part of the project’s north campus, roughly half of the 312,000 square feet that will be developed during the first phase of construction.
Throughout the process, developer Jeffrey Gove has declined to disclose potential tenants for the project, stating that each business prefers to announce on its own terms. However, rumors had circulated that Market Basket and Costco could be potential tenants. Gove has said that some tenants would be new to Maine.
The project, especially the south campus stemming from the Westbrook Arterial, still has other major tenants remaining, including a proposed wholesale club. The south campus buildings will be constructed last.
Gove said Wednesday he’s aware that Walmart is often a “lightning rod” for communities, inspiring a passionate response.
“I think as long as everyone follows the rules, you’ll end up with a good project in the long run, and I think that’s exactly what we’ll have here,” he said.
Gove said the parcel is a commercial site that is zoned appropriately. One of the main entrances to the property will be across from the Main Street entrance to  Westbrook Crossing, home to Kohl’s and Shaw’s.
“It’s surrounded entirely by commercial properties,” he said.
When asked if he believes residents will be excited by future announcements of other tenants, expected in the next three to four months, Gove said that “there will be a nice mix of complementary tenants.” He said these include some “great dining choices” that aren’t available anywhere in the city.
Since the announcement, there has already been talk of a potential petition drive or action to stop the business from coming in, but options are limited, and would be largely symbolic.
In 2004, resident pushback against a 203,000-square-foot Walmart proposed for the former Saunders Mill property behind Main Street proved successful. The group, known as Westbrook Our Home, urged city officials to cap the size of potential retail projects in the gateway zone, which was eventually passed.
Westbrook Our Home was led by residents Eileen Shutts and Anne Bureau. In a comment on the American Journal’s Facebook page last week, Bureau said that “people can call their city councilor and express their concerns or attend council and planning board meetings, but we really have little say in what stores come into our town if the zoning policies in place allow the use.”
In response to an inquiry from Bates about the options available to residents, City Clerk Angela Holmes said laws can be changed to prohibit use, but not to prohibit individual businesses.
“It sounds like people are opposed to a particular business, but that they’re not necessarily opposed to allowing large retail stores in that area,” she said. “Since large retail facilities are a permitted use in this location, by code, a citizens’ initiative/referendum petition wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Holmes said the most effective way to air concerns for the project is for residents to attend the planned public hearing on the development during a June Planning Board meeting. The first Planning Board meeting in June is Tuesday, June 7.
Despite the options, many residents still want their voices heard. Many have said they plan to attend the upcoming Planning Board meetings reviewing the project.
Westbrook resident Kathleen O’Neill-Lussier said this week that she has many issues with Walmart, but that it comes down to its business practices.
“Walmart appears to utilize a strategy where they run out the competition, and then they monopolize the market,” she said. “Now there are empty stores, few choices and fewer jobs.”
She added that “Westbrook deserves better,” and that a tenant not already established in Greater Portland could attract people from away who might spend more time and money downtown.
Sarah Webber, an employee of the Westbrook Community Center, said this week that “Walmart is a step in the wrong direction for Westbrook.”
She said that as Westbrook looks to redevelop its downtown, the addition of a Walmart in the city goes against the ideas for putting a focus on downtown retail.
Other comments on social media described the announcement as “disappointing,” “upsetting” and “unfortunate.”

 

But for city officials, the project shows promise, especially at a site that has been used as a gravel pit for decades. Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations, said this week that he hasn’t received any calls or emails in response to the announcement.

His hope is that the plaza, including Walmart, can bring in traffic and people to the city, who might not normally shop in Westbrook.

He also said there seems to be some misconception from residents who believe the city administration is responsible for choosing the plaza’s tenants.

“As a permitted use, the landowner and developer have certain legal rights and latitude and they determine what the market needs and what can be sustained at a location like this, and in this case the law allows them to do it,” he said.

Some supporters, such as WLOB radio host Ray Richardson, say the negativity surrounding the Walmart announcement comes down to “snobbery.”

“I’m thrilled that they’re doing this,” he said. “An honest job is a good job no matter what the job is. Maine people need jobs.”

Richardson was also involved in the previous Walmart effort, at one time collecting signitures in support of the project.

The next scheduled Planning Board meetings in review of Dirigo Plaza are Tuesday, May 3, and Tuesday, May 17.

On the proposed site plan for Dirigo Plaza in Westbrook, Walmart would be located in “Building E,” directly on the right side of the railroad tracks that split the north and south campuses.

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