There can be little doubt that back in 1994, when Columbia County planners first began laying the groundwork for downtown Evans, Wal-Mart wasnt part of the vision.
The 30-plus-acre Gray family property had been zoned commercial since the early 1970s, and was at the western edge of the town center. It also sits at the entrance of the Chimney Hill subdivision, where long-time residents had grown accustomed to the undeveloped buffer from Washington Road.
Though planners try to anticipate the marketplace, they dont have a crystal ball. In detailed discussions about the type of windows and brickwork that the quaint shops of a future downtown would have, none of the planners foresaw a mega-retail store eclipsing their visions of Evans future.
Thats the way the free market works: Plans that sound good on paper today can be worthless tomorrow. The planners, after all, werent spending any money to create the town center (as some critics pointed out); they were simply setting up guidelines to nudge the vision forward.
In that sense, then, the Wal-Mart project came as a cold dose of reality. The giant brick box didnt seem to fit anyones vision of quaintness, and the prospect of the supercenter looming on the landscape frightened many nearby residents.
Even so, there comes a time - as the famed Serenity Prayer says - to accept the things you cannot change. Sure, that may be difficult for residential opponents of Wal-Mart, or for some county officials. But acceptance will come easier for county planners, especially Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Steve Brown - a chief proponent of the Evans town center rules - and Jeff Browning, the countys planning director. Through careful negotiations, they saw to it that the big box design and the landscaping not only met, but exceeded, the town centers strict rules.
Whether they are happy about the new store or not, then, Columbia County residents can take pride in the fact that the new store is among the nicest in the Wal-Mart chain - more attractive, even, than the store in famously restrictive Hilton Head, S.C.
The store also will transform the financial landscape of Evans. In addition to an estimated $750,000 in annual sales tax receipts, the county will reap the benefit of some 500 new jobs at the store, and from greatly increased property tax revenues from the site. And while Wal-Mart stores nationwide are often criticized for killing off smaller competitors, the Evans store already is spawning nearby retail outlets hoping to capitalize on increased traffic.
That traffic, unfortunately, remains a problem. A signal at the stores Washington Road entrance will help, but it wont rescue long-suffering residents of nearby Chimney Hill and Country Place subdivisions. Surely the Georgia Department of Transportation can respond to those hundreds of homeowners concerns.
One thing is certain: Whatever the visions of Evans, the evolving reality is now far different thanks to Wal-Mart. Theyve built it, and we will come.
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