Andover Mayor Mike Gamache was up at sunrise Wednesday to help cut the ribbon on his city's new Wal-Mart. So was the Anoka County sheriff, the city fire chief, a crowd of shoppers hungry for deals, along with a smattering of union protesters.

In August, Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan stood in front of his city's new Wal-Mart supercenter just off Central Avenue ushering in the new retailer. Last week, Ryan praised the new jobs and north-metro shopping opportunities created, but puzzled a bit over the rash of Wal-Marts opening.

"We still can't figure out why they are putting them so close," Ryan said.

This year, Wal-Mart has opened three supercenters in Minnesota, all in the north metro. Now supercenters are in Andover, Blaine and Princeton. Wal-Mart had four new supercenters open in 2012, including one in Brooklyn Center in September 2012. With its aggressive north-metro expansion, Wal-Mart has eclipsed Target on its home turf. Minnesota now has 79 Wal-Marts and Sam's Clubs vs. 75 Targets.

And north-metro shoppers can expect more.

A Wal-Mart supercenter is under construction in Roseville, and the big-box retailer filed a development application earlier this month to build another supercenter in Blaine near the 35W-Lexington Avenue interchange. The newly opened supercenters join nine existing north-metro Wal-Mart stores.

"We continue to be selective when choosing new store locations to ensure we make the best use of our capital from a long-term perspective and build a store that is a good fit for each community where we do business, including our hometown," said Target spokeswoman Anne Christensen, in an e-mail.

The north metro may have long been Target territory, but Wal-Mart now has that part of the Twin Cities in its bull's-eye. North-metro city officials and analysts cite a host of reasons for Wal-Mart's aggressive expansion. There's room — both acreage and market share — for additional big-box retailers in the north metro. Wal-Mart is capitalizing on that opportunity, often opening stores across the street from existing Targets.

Generally, opposition hasn't been as insurmountable as in other areas of the Twin Cities. And Anoka County shoppers, long price sensitive, welcome the competition, said Andover City Administrator Jim Dickinson.

'Engine for growth'

The first Wal-Mart opened in Minnesota in 1986, more than two decades after the first Target in the nation opened in Roseville.

Wal-Mart opened its first Anoka County store in Coon Rapids in 1990. Now all but seven in the state are supercenters offering groceries and general merchandise.

"The supercenter is Wal-Mart's engine for growth. Customers prefer the convenience of one-stop shopping for general merchandise and groceries," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia. "We continue to see opportunities to grow and serve our customers in Minnesota and particularly the north metro."

Minneapolis retail consultant Jim McComb cites a couple of reasons the north metro could appeal to Wal-Mart vs. other Twin Cities suburbs.

"It may be easier to find 20-acre sites in the north metro. Generally across the north metro, it's less highly developed. It's a lot tougher to find 20 acres in the south metro that are a good retail location," McComb said. "The income profile in the north metro is a little lower than the south metro. That is more consistent with Wal-Mart's core customer."

The mayor of Blaine said there was little opposition to the new supercenter on Ulysses Street, just off Central Avenue on the city's west side. The Wal-Mart is less than a mile from an existing SuperTarget.

Ryan said he welcomed the 300 jobs and the deals.

"I go there. I shop there. I like the store," Ryan said.

A proposed Wal-Mart supercenter just off Lexington Avenue on Blaine's east end has sparked more controversy because of the proximity to a neighborhood and an existing Wal-Mart in the Village of Blaine shopping complex, which is less than a mile away. Wal-Mart wants the new store so it can sell groceries. A covenant restricts grocery sales at its Village of Blaine location.

Ryan said the city is just embarking on that development process, but he says he won't allow general distaste — what he has called the "love to hate Wal-Mart" movement — sway his decisionmaking.

"It isn't up to us to discriminate against any store," Ryan said.

Some public controversy

In Andover, a retail market study commissioned by the city indicated the area could support a third grocery store. That and a large, commercially zoned parcel on the suburb's main street, Bunker Lake Road, drew Wal-Mart, said Dickinson, the city's manager.

"We didn't go out looking for them. There was room in that area for another store like that," Mayor Gamache said. "They are looking in the future and seeing Anoka County is taking off."

Still, not everyone in town was thrilled.

"Wal-Mart didn't have a walk in the park from the public," Dickinson said. "There was some controversy along the way."

Some residents opposing the store's construction cited traffic, environmental concerns and fears Wal-Mart would drive other stores out of business. Gamache said it was a starkly different reaction compared to when Target went in across 2003.

"I didn't receive one negative contact about Target. I did receive some negative contact about Wal-Mart," Gamache said.

During the development process, Dickinson said Wal-Mart was very accommodating when city leaders asked questions and raised concerns and were eager to make specific changes to meet the city's demands.

"Wal-Mart is learning some things along the way," Dickinson said. "They are stepping to the plate and not challenging everything … They are saying, 'We want to be a good neighbor and we will take care of that.' ''

It's now one of Andover's largest employers with 300 jobs: 15 salaried and 285 hourly. Wal-Mart's spokeswoman wouldn't give a breakdown on how many workers are part time or full time but said a majority are full time with benefits.

The new Wal-Mart is directly across the street from Target. On opening day, shoppers ambled through the 148,000-square feet of groceries and goods. Store manager Todd Vanstraten greeted customers. Vanstraten, his father in Green Bay and his brother in Plymouth all manage Wal-Mart stores. He said price is what keeps customers coming back.

Jody Oldenburg of Andover agreed, as she filled her cart with groceries.

"I love it," Oldenburg said. "It's close by. I like the prices."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804