It might not be a Wal-Mart. It might not even amount to anything in the end.
But the possibility of Moab getting a Wal-Mart-like “big box” retail store grew significantly larger last week when the Moab City Council amended its large-scale retail ordinance in order to accommodate a Scottsdale, Ariz., developer that holds a contract on a 38-acre parcel in Moab.
The vacant land, owned by a group of individuals headed by ex-Moabite Ralph Stroble of Bullard, Texas, was part of a large annexation passed two months ago that significantly extended the city limits south of town. The lot is located on the west side of Highway 191 directly opposite the intersection with Mill Creek Drive. Driving south of town, after passing Sage Drive on the left, the next intersection on the left is Mill Creek Drive and the property in question is on the right side of the highway, near Moab Outpost 4×4.
The changes to the big-box ordinance effectively loosened parking lot requirements while tightening others that demand screening of HVAC units and better drainage. Under the original ordinance, parking had to be “predominantly” in the rear of the building or on the side. The idea was to pull buildings closer to the street in order to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment. The amended ordinance allows up to 70 percent of the parking to be in front of the store.
The move began about three years ago, not long after the original ordinance was passed in 2008, according to Moab City Planning Director Jeff Reinhart. The Arizona developer, Diversified Partners, which specializes in large-scale retail and strip malls, first approached the city with a detailed “concept plan” for a store that was 100,000 sq. ft. Current city law allows a store of up to 200,000 sq. ft.
“They initially had a concept plan for that specific piece of property,” Reinhart said. “It was pretty detailed, especially regarding the front facade. They had heard about some of the requirements that they were going to have trouble meeting. I think they wanted to make it more flexible.”
But did the developer ever mention a particular chain store?
Reinhart said the discussions were “in the context of ‘we don’t know who it’s going to be.’ It could be Wal-Mart, Target. It was just a wide-open conversation.”
Both the owner of the property, Ralph Stroble, and DP agent Robert Mayhew confirmed that the property has been under contract for three years and that the contract is still in effect.
Stroble would not discuss which chain store DP was aiming for.
This property is attractive for large-scale retail, DP’s Mayhew said, partly because it lies adjacent to land owned by the University of Utah, which is planning a Moab campus in the not-to-distant future.
One of the changes to the big-box ordinance came at the request of the university because their campus is directly uphill of the Stroble property, overlooking the site of any future large retailer. University officials asked the city to include certain aesthetic requirements, such as screening HVAC units from view.
Mayhew said DP is pursuing the development on speculation.
“We don’t have a predisposition for any particular retailer,” he said.
Their website lists Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Kohl’s and Best Buy among a list of firms they have a history with.
“We’ve done work with the whole list,” Mayhew said.
DP has developed a dozen or so big-box stores, mainly in the Phoenix area.
The developer asked the city to loosen the parking requirements to make Moab more amenable to potential stores.
“If any community wants to be attractive to a retailer, they need to be flexible,” he said.
But many are skeptical about the prospect of a big-box retailer building in Moab, saying the market is just too small.
Mayhew’s company thinks differently.
“I think if you look at retail in general, they look at overall potential sales volume. I think there’s an opportunity, but I’d be way over my ski tips if I opined. Moab is a thin market, but it’s a good story.”
Local real estate broker Dave Bierschied of Moab Realty has been assisting DP with market research but was not able say what that research indicates for supporting a big-box retailer.
“I’m only a messenger in this deal,” he said. He did not have the expertise to know what the research might mean to a chain store like Wal-Mart.
Grand County Council member Chris Baird was a leader in the original push to get a big-box ordinance passed in 2008.
“It was a two-year-long process that a lot of people worked on,” he said. “My main interest was to preserve local business.”
Many studies have shown that the entry of a Wal-Mart-like chain store into a community can hurt competing, locally-owned businesses such as hardware stores and groceries.
Asked his reaction to the news about DP and the changes to the parking requirements, Baird said, “The make-up of the (city) council appears to be more sympathetic to large-scale retail developers than to the local people who worked so hard on the ordinance. This is somebody from out of state. It wasn’t locally driven, whereas the (original) ordinance was locally driven. And at the very first instance of somebody coming in, the city changes it.”