Walmart ditches plans for Bethlehem supercenter

Sarah M. Wojcik/The Morning Call - Plans for the first brick-and-mortar Walmart supercenter in Bethlehem’s city limits ground to an abrupt halt Thursday when the retail giant announced it is withdrawing its proposal for the site — the second time in as many weeks the company has ditched stores slated for the Lehigh Valley.

158,000-square-foot facility pitched for Lehigh Valley Industrial Park VII, at Route 412 and Commerce Center Boulevard in south Bethlehem last year would have made it the ninth storefront in the region and the first in the Christmas City.

Phil Keene, Walmart’s director of corporate communications, said the company has been focused on finding new, innovative ways to serve customers.

“With that in mind, after rigorous review, and consideration of several business factors, we have made the difficult decision not to move forward with building a new Walmart store in Bethlehem,” he wrote in an email. “We remain very grateful for the support and professionalism of city leadership while we worked through the development process.”

Bethlehem hosts two of the company’s massive fulfillment centers to support the growing e-commerce side of the retail business, where it goes head-to-head with rival Amazon.

The Bethlehem announcement marks the second time this month that Walmart’s plans for a new Lehigh Valley storefront have crumbled. The retail company announced at a Sept. 11 Lehigh Township Planning Commission meeting that plans to build a supercenter at Route 145 and Birch Drive were being tossed.

The township board of supervisors approved the company’s withdrawal of its land development plan for the 34.5-acre site. The company had secured variance approval for the site in May 2013, but then progress stalled. The planning commission was addressing access concerns in December before the proposal again went quiet.

A Walmart store along Route 309 in Schnecksville also earned approval in 2009, but has yet to move forward.

The Bethlehem location would have been about seven miles from the next closest store on Linden Street in Bethlehem Township.

In May 2016, Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez said he looked forward to reviewing the plans and working with the company. Walmart’s public relations team expressed an eagerness to bring jobs and affordable shopping to the South Side. Donchez did not return a message seeking comment.

Kerry Wrobel, president of Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc., said the organization is disappointed by Walmart’s decision. “However, we will now market the tract to local and national retail developers,” he said.

National retail analyst Jeff Green said Walmart appears to be revaluating its plans for new brick-and-mortar stores.

“I think what they’re doing is actually slowing down the supercenter development because of what is going on with brick and mortar, and even more important, the supermarket industry,” said Green, who owns Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix.

Green said 60 percent of Walmart supercenter sales come from groceries, and recent events — such as Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods on Aug. 28 — have forced Walmart and other competitors to rethink their building strategies.

Walmart reported $485.9 billion in total revenue for the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31, 2017, according to its corporate website. It operates 11,723 retail stores throughout the world, including 4,692 in the U.S. The company has 160 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the Pennsylvania.

Early last year, the company shuttered 269 stores around the country, but none in the Lehigh Valley.

When Lehigh Township learned the company pulled the plug on the supercenter there, township Supervisor Cindy Miller speculated that the retail landscape could be playing a role in the company’s change in plans, especially Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods.