Walmart coming to Darlington

By Tony Watkins, Mayor of City of Darlington

During my campaign and subsequent election to Mayor in 2003, I sought the support of the people of Darlington for a plan that I believed would help to revitalize our downtown. I sought your support because this plan required such a change in the way we were doing things, and was such an enormous undertaking. Your support in those early days of my tenure helped make it possible for the city to have brought a total investment of over 7 million dollars to the downtown which, in my opinion, stabilized this distressed area, added probably 40 to 50 years of useful life to some of our most historic buildings, and in some cases actually prevented their demolition. I believe that this may have been the largest investment in the downtown in modern times, and perhaps in its history.
This renovation became our first order of business and created and restored some of the most valuable commercial properties in Downtown Darlington. The Coleman Block Building, The Hill building, and the Old McLellan Building were just some of the structures that were spared from a very uncertain fate.

Despite the growth of business along the bypass area, we still consider the downtown the heart and soul of the City, and we were happy to announce recently that Victor Webster, an entrepreneur who has decided to invest in Darlington, has purchased the property at the corner of Ward and Exchange Streets from the City and will soon be opening a pub restaurant at that location. Victor has a track record of very successful investments in downtown Florence, and we are very excited about the future impact of his business to our downtown area.

As excited as we are about progress in the downtown, we are now eagerly anticipating the location of a Walmart Supercenter on South Main Street, complete with a delicatessen, a bakery, a grocery, and an outdoor garden center. The city has been privy to Walmart’s plans for many months, and even years, but at their request we were not at liberty to make a formal announcement until recently. In the past several weeks a lot of progress has been made in the final stages of locating this major retailer within the City Limits of Darlington and turning all the planning into a reality. Walmart has now closed on the property, which is located directly behind O’Reilly’s Auto Parts on South Main Street. We have contracted with Pigate Construction to place a 12″ water line underneath Highway 52 in order to provide the level of water service that Walmart requires, and that is taking place now. Site preparation has also begun and will be followed by the construction of a 125,000 square foot Supercenter. As part of an agreement we reached with Walmart, the City of Darlington will spend up to $300,000 to provide an intersection and other infrastructure at the Walmart entrance. We have received permit applications which indicate a construction cost of $8.9 million dollars. Anticipated total employment will be about 255 people. An opening date has not been announced, but according to the broker it takes about 9 months to build a new Supercenter depending on the weather and the speed at which the contractors work. At one point we were told by Wolverton Engineers, who is the chief contractor, that it was Walmart’s goal to open this year before the holidays, but as much as we would like to see this happen, late January or early February, 2016 seems to be a much more realistic date.

In order to share with you some of the history of how we got here, I need to tell you about three key people who are not from Darlington, but who are very involved in our city.

First, there is Scott Bortz of Tribek Properties, in Charlotte, N.C. In September, 2007, Mr. Bortz invested $2.1 million dollars in five properties which constituted about 80 acres at the corner of South Main Street and the bypass. He developed Walgreens on a portion of that property, and it did exceptionally well, but thanks to the recession and other factors he didn’t sell another portion until November, 2012 when O’Reilly’s decided to build on about 1 acre of land. Now, in anticipation of Walmart’s decision to purchase and locate on his property, Scott has employed the services of Avison and Young, an international marketing firm, to recruit new businesses for the remainder of the property. We understand that they have received a number of letters of intent to build on the outparcels adjacent to Walmart. We know that among those are a shoe store, a ladies fashion store, as well as a sporting goods store. The city has received interest from several restaurants and we are actively pursuing the possibility of locating a hotel on the available property.

The next person I want to mention is Dave Roetto. Dave is a regional broker for Walmart in Bentonville, Arkansas, who listened to me when I told him what a great place that Darlington would be for a Walmart and how I thought our citizens would reward them with their business if they chose to come here. For over four years, Dave was my only contact with Walmart and he never once lost patience with me, never failed to return my calls, and never gave up on Darlington. I believe that it was because of him that Walmart’s interest in locating in Darlington did not literally drop off the map.

The third person is Howard Hill. Howard is a broker in Greenville, S.C., who works exclusively with Walmart. Howard always listened and helped whenever we hit a snag. Other than the advance team, Howard Hill, along with Chris Mains, who is the chief engineer with Wolverton were the first Walmart representatives to visit Darlington to talk with us face to face about the possibility of coming here. Along the way, there were many, many people, both within and outside the city administration who helped move this project forward. The City Council never wavered in its support, and City Manager Howard Garland, Planner and Economic Development Director Lisa Rock, former City Manager and Planner Rodney Langley, Water Superintendent Freddie Kinsaul, City Attorney Albert James and Building Inspector Henry Chapman worked tirelessly to make things come together.

I want to mention also a very special lady by the name of Virginia Jones. Mrs. Jones lives at the corner of South Main and Patience Streets in Darlington and she helped us tremendously by cooperating with the City’s efforts to close Patience Street so that we could construct a critical intersection next to this small street.

The Darlington County Council helped us enormously by transferring ownership of Patience Street to the city and I want to especially thank Bobby Kilgo, Wesley Blackwell, and Bobby Hudson for their leadership and for their support. Senator Gerald Malloy intervened at a critical time by helping us overcome a major obstacle with the South Carolina Department of Transportation.Time doesn’t permit me to tell you about the help of so many others, or how many hurdles we had to overcome, or how many times we had to convince ourselves that we had to keep trying and to not give up, even when things looked almost hopeless.

So here we are today and all the anticipation and all the doubts about whether Walmart is coming are over. Until now, the most common observation about Walmart was, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And I have to tell you that some of the anticipation has been accompanied to some extent by feelings of uncertainty. We’ve heard examples of what has happened when a Walmart came to some town and that local businesses were adversely impacted and that some were even lost.

But In my opinion, these examples don’t really fit Darlington’s situation. Most of our citizens are going to Walmart now and are travelling to Hartsville and especially Florence. We are already very close to three Walmart Supercenters, to say nothing about the Magnolia Mall, the Florence Mall, three large Lowe’s Centers, Home Depot, the Swamp Fox Cinema, dozens of restaurants, and hundreds of other retail and entertainment attractions. I really believe that the consequences of all this competition on local businesses has already occurred. The remaining Darlington businesses have weathered all this almost overwhelming competition as well as the most serious recession this country has experienced since the Great Depression. Having survived all these challenges, I believe that most of them have now found their niche and are inoculated against a uncertain economy. The goal of attracting new business now is not to split the pie into smaller pieces, it is to make the pie bigger by drawing shoppers back into Darlington who would otherwise travel to Florence. We know by observation that other businesses are attracted to areas where Walmarts are located and other synergies are created. In conjunction with supplying water to Walmart, for example, Pigate Construction will be extending a sewer line further down the bypass and constructing a lift station to encourage further growth along that corridor. Already Taco Bell has begun construction at the point where the sewer line comes out on the bypass. Investment in expensive infrastructure is essential to further business growth. Although we have no crystal ball, I believe that we must take bold steps to become a more aggressive player in the regional economy and we must expect some economic readjustment. When we welcome new business and provide the infrastructure they need, these companies will bring with them the opportunity, the choices, and the jobs that Darlington needs if it wishes to grow.

Finally, let me say that I have felt truly honored and privileged to serve almost 26 years on council, the last nearly 12 years as your Mayor. As I now approach the final months of my final term, I want to thank you for your support. I am very excited about the future of Darlington and I believe that we are on the cusp of an economic resurgence that will make our economy more self-sufficient, provide the choices and the jobs that our citizens so desperately need, and stimulate the growth that will ensure our future. I look forward to this year’s election, when, for the first time in many years, I will not be a candidate for office. I feel confident that the citizens of Darlington, in their collective wisdom, will select leaders who will bring new ideas and energy to city government to make not only the changes that are necessary to ensure our future, but who will also help preserve the history and traditions that have made and will continue to make Darlington great.

Thank you all again for all the help and support you have given me over these past many years.

Tony Watkins

Author: Duane Childers

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