A bucolic life in Mayberry, but where's the Wal-Mart?

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2008 - 12:31 AM

Some newcomers to the south metro area's fringe communities miss the convenience of big-box retailers typical of large, inner suburbs.

The morning after the candidates for City Council in Belle Plaine faced the voters in a public forum, the mayor was asked what came up as a source of irritation.

"Economic growth," Tom Meger said. Translation: "Where's our Target? Where's our Wal-Mart?" he said.

All across the southern reaches of Scott County this fall, candidates for public office are facing the same sorts of questions.

People who migrated from the suburbs into the more remote small towns in quest of cheaper homes and a Mayberry-like existence for the kids are finding that some things about closer-in suburbs were mighty handy after all.

Shouldn't they have known? Laura Piehl, a candidate for mayor of Elko New Market, thinks they should have -- and did.

"When you move out here, you kind of know that, yeah, you have to go 10 miles," she said, to find a Target, a Home Depot, or any other of the "big box" stores that are a standard feature of life closer in.

But candidates and public officials agree that people who bought before the era of volatile gas prices and drastic slowdowns in growth now find themselves in a different world. It costs real money today to drive to the next town and back -- and for many it's a lot more than 10 miles. At the same time, the sudden slowdown in housing growth, symbolized by weedy, unfinished subdivisions at the edge of town, means the day when the major retailers might take an interest could well be pushed back by years.

What's causing trouble in some towns could be creating competitive advantages for others. New Prague is a case in point.

"There's a lot of stuff in our little community that a lot of others don't have," said Bink Bender, the mayor of the city on the southern border of Scott County. "Target will probably not stick a store in Elko when there's already one in Lakeville. But about a year ago, we got a new big box, an ALCO, and Wal-Mart is planning on coming here. We're turning into sort of a little mini-trade area. Even Coburn's had an effect on cities like Montgomery and Jordan, with people coming here to take advantage of a supermarket that's open 24 hours. The mayor of Montgomery tells me their grocery store noticed a downturn in volume. Lonsdale would be another one. Wal-Mart coming here would make things even harder for those communities."

Harder for merchants perhaps, but better for shoppers. Even though it would be 20 minutes away, said Meger, the mayor of Belle Plaine, people in that city hope Wal-Mart does come to New Prague. Because there's no sign of anything like that happening in Belle Plaine itself.

As much as voters may blame public officials, Meger said, it's the reality of business. "Big-box retail is population driven. With a city of 6,700, can we support it? Will Target look at Belle Plaine? The city's never been approached by any large big-box developer as such."

Little though she may sympathize with those who didn't seem to realize what they were getting themselves into when they moved to tiny communities far from retail hubs, Piehl agrees that the new world of roller-coaster gas prices heightens anxiety on the issue.

"When gas prices went up, I would hear that all the time," she said. "I drive 120 miles a day, which gets very expensive, my husband is close to about the same. He goes way north for work while I am at the airport, but I have to go to New Prague to get one kid from sports and my other child has another sport in Burnsville, so it's parent taxicab."

She shops for groceries at the SuperTarget in Lakeville and can often combine trips. While she's "not a big fan" of Wal-Mart in principle, she can't pledge she'd never make her way over to New Prague to shop there, even though it's about 20 minutes away.

"If it were one of the 'super' ones with groceries, I can see where it would be a benefit."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

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