Planning Commission rejects 24/7 operations for Walmart Neighborhood Market

Originally published: March 17, 2015 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article

Conway Planning Commission members rejected a proposal Monday to open the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 2550 Prince Street for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Planning Commission makes recommendations to the Conway City Council at its monthly meeting at the Russell L. “Jack” Roberts District Court Building.

In rejecting the proposal, the commission instead moved forward with a recommendation that the city council allow the Neighborhood Market to stay open for an additional hour at night, which would leave the store open until 1 a.m. instead of midnight.

The store currently opens at 6 a.m.

Two of nine voting members spoke out vocally against the proposal, saying that they made a promise three years ago to residents to restrict the hours as a form of compromise.

Several nearby residents appeared during three public input meetings in 2012 – two at the the District Court Building and one at the Conway Police Department – to voice their opposition to the Walmart Neighborhood Market coming to their area of Conway.

Little Rock attorney Stephen Giles, outside land use counsel in Arkansas for Walmart Stores Inc., represented the Neighborhood Market at Monday’s meeting and called the change a “simple request.”

“The really basic reason for that is that we have customers or potential customers who have late-night shifts and they can’t shop until 1 or 2 in the morning on their way home,” Giles said.

He said all other Neighborhood Markets in Arkansas are not restricted in terms of hours of operation.

To help ease residents’ concerns about traffic in the area as a result of 24/7 operations, Giles said the shift in hours would not result in a significant increase in traffic.

A Conway resident at Timberlane Trail, to the northwest of the Neighborhood Market, said that while there are benefits to the store, other grocers in the area such as Kroger Marketplace on Salem Road choose to not stay open 24 hours.

“It’s not really a 24/7 kind of a corridor,” she said, adding her concerns that the change in operating hours for the Neighborhood Market might “open the door” for more Conway stores to follow suit.

Kroger Marketplace currently has the option of opening 24 hours.

Commission secretary Anne Tucker said the hours of operation “we’re a big deal” during the 2012 discussions of developing the Neighborhood Market.

“At the time, I didn’t think 24/7 was necessary,” she said. “I was a big, huge proponent of limited hours and I still feel that way for the same reasons.”

Among those reasons: traffic concerns, demand for later store hours at other businesses and late-night noise in the area of west Conway.

“My recollection is that nearly all of the opposition to this was not to the hours but to the existence of it, period,” said Mark Lewis, vice chair of the Planning Commission.

Lewis added that he found it “noteworthy” that most seats were empty at the Planning Commission meeting.

Other commission members said the empty seats were not necessarily a reflection of public opinion, but instead could be the result of feeling that their voices in 2012 were not heard.

“Regarding their thought processes, most of them would say, ‘What difference is it going to make. We went out in numbers last time. Nobody listened,’” Planning Commission member Marilyn Armstrong said, adding that she does not see that anything has changed.

Tucker and Armstrong, as well as five other commission members disapproved of extending store hours for the Walmart Neighborhood Market. Lewis voted in favor and Bryan Quinn abstained, citing his lack of knowledge regarding the matter.

The Conway City Council is expected to take up the hours of operation issue at its March 24 meeting at 6 p.m. at the Russell L. “Jack” Roberts District Court Building.

Apart from the proposed hours of operation changes for the Walmart Neighborhood Market, the Planning Commission also:

• Approved changes to the setback variance for Lewis Crossing, one of Conway’s retail development projects, at the site of the old Lewis Livestock Auction along Amity Road and Dave Ward Drive. The changes allow a 30-foot reduction in the required 40-foot front setback to five lots facing Amity Road and a 15-foot reduction in the required 40-foot front setback on three lots along Dave Ward Drive;

• Supported the annexation and rezoning of land for single-family housing and a self-storage facility at the northeast corner of E. German Lane and Bill Lucy Drive. A conditional use permit allowing for the facility also was supported, with conditions to hours of operation to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., landscaping and fencing. Residents in the area, following concerns from commission members regarding the self-storage facility’s visual presence, voiced their support for the conditional use permit.