LITTLE FALLS -- If the Little Falls City Council accepts its planning and zoning commission's recommendation on rezoning property north of the Country Inn and Suites, the city will be one step closer to having a Wal-Mart Super Center.
The city council met Monday to determine the zoning of 24 acres of property off Highway 10 near the Highway 27 exit. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has a purchase agreement for this land with Neil, Patricia and Mary Lou Thesing.
The land is zoned agricultural and the Thesings requested that the city zone it a non-central business district or a B-3, which would conform to the surrounding area. This zoning would allow for a superstore.
After the city council heard from several Little Falls residents, both opponents and proponents of a superstore, they sent the request back to the planning and zoning commission for further study and a recommendation.
The planning commission then met immediately and voted 2-1 in favor of the B-3 zoning. Only four of the seven members on the commission were present. The acting chair, Randy Fossum, chose to abstain and did not vote. Members Phyllis Braith and Jim Waller voted in favor of the rezoning and member Robert Mushel voted against it.
The commission reviewed the zoning classifications and the city's comprehensive plan before taking a vote.
City Attorney Peter Vogel said the comprehensive plan states that the area in question was designed to be zoned B-3. Vogel said the city council should follow the comprehensive plan and if it doesn't council members should state their reason or reasons.
After the commission voted, the city council had already adjourned its meeting. The city council is expected to vote on the commission's recommendation at its meeting Monday.
The superstore would be 203,816 square feet and would include groceries, a liquor store, an auto center, a gas station and a pharmacy with a drive-up window.
Residents who spoke against the proposal were mainly opposed to the impact the superstore would have on small businesses. Susan Paulson, a downtown business owner, said she fears for small businesses. She asked the city council to slow down and to not make a rushed decision.
Another business owner, Sandy Smith, said, "We are worried. Please look at it and look at our historic downtown. We welcome competition, but not this big."
Resident Brett Parker said, "I've been in many communities and people have lost their businesses when Wal-Mart came to town. I think a super Wal-Mart will affect downtown."
Stephen Browning said he was a college student in Hibbing when the Wal-Mart Super Center came to town. He said at first he thought it was great for the cheap prices. Then he began noticing all the businesses closing. He said the mall lost half of its businesses.
Several Wal-Mart employees spoke in favor of the zoning. Cindy Molitor has worked at Wal-Mart for 12 years and she said it has treated her fairly. She said she is offered good benefits.
Another employee, Amanda Dawson, said Wal-Mart has given back to the community in many ways, such as donating money to different organizations, including the fire and police departments.
Resident Jerry Thomes said the city needs to continue to grow. He said Wal-Mart would be a good asset and employ more than 200 people.
"I think this would be a positive move for Little Falls," he said.
JENNIFER STOCKINGER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5851.
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