North Adams saw an uptick in commercial values of $7 million with the opening of a Walmart Supercenter three years ago.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — As the proposed Walmart Supercenter debate begins to unfold, the developer's claims of increased tax revenue reflects what happened in North Adams.
In 2013, the company closed the store it had been occupying since 1993 and moved down the road to a former gravel bed. The gravel bed had been assessed at $1,613,800 and the redevelopment upped the value to $10,694,900, according to Ross Vivori, chairman of the North Adams Board of Assessors.
In Pittsfield, the company is seeking a similar upgrade in its footprint. Walmart plans to close its Hubbard Avenue location and build a 190,000 square-foot supercenter in the William Stanley Business Park. The developer, Waterstone Realty, has estimated between $300,000 and $500,000 in additional tax revenue will be generated by the project.
While those numbers seem to be a dangling carrot in front of city officials and residents, the claim holds muster if the North Adams case is any indication. The criticism of such big-box stores has been that because they can use their size to deflate pricing, they make it more difficult for smaller companies to keep up. The tactic has been said to drive competition out of business.
That legacy may hold true in some areas but not in the case of North Adams, the closest to Pittsfield to see a similar project. The city had already been struggling economically with retaining small businesses and the supercenter was seen by some as a further detriment to the mom and pop shops.
But, Vivori says since the supercenter was opened, the total number of commercial taxpayers has only decreased by two while the overall commercial value has grown by $7 million, including more than doubling the amount the company pays in taxes.
Walmart would have paid $168,778 at its former location in 2013 based on $5,122,300 in assessed value. The supercenter is valued at $10,694,900 yielding a current bill of $405,907 plus $31,140 in personal property. That higher assessment hasn't changed since the opening.
Further, Vivori said there were 262 commercial properties on the books in 2013 and now there are 260 — a net decrease of two. With businesses opening and closing on a regular basis, there is nothing to suggest Walmart is responsible for closings — if anything, the commercial struggles the city had prior to the supercenter has remained. Overall, commercial values in North Adams have increased from $103 million to $110 million, most of which can be attributed to the Walmart project.
In Pittsfield, the company's current location is valued at $9,039,700 and personal property at $311,380, according to Board of Assessors Chairwoman Paula King. Without having much to go on with plans, King estimates (and stressed the word estimate) that the new supercenter could be assessed at $13,524,600. That would lead to a $514,746 tax bill. King said that is "conservative" because there are several unknowns right now.
There are many differences between the county's two cities and Pittsfield does boast more commercial properties. For Pittsfield, the city saw a significant decline in commercial values following the 2008 housing market crash. Since 2010, commercial property values are down by $11,896,751 and personal property values dropped by $6,925,260. The market was hit by a number of vacant commercial spaces. The value of commercial spaces takes on an added importance in Pittsfield because the city has a split tax rate that provides a higher rate for businesses than residential properties.
Should all factors remain stable, the city would be in line to see commercial values rise from the current level with the new storefront. That won't bring the city back to pre-recession days but does add to the city coffers, which could ultimately be one of the major factors the City Council weighs in the coming months.
The City Council needs to approve a special permit for the new supercenter right on the heels of passing a city budget. The phrase being repeated the most these days is "levy ceiling" because the city's ability to raise taxes is eroding. In order to raise the levy ceiling, the city needs to see a significant increase in property values.
Walmart's new proposal won't impact the next budget, when the city will have somewhere around $2.4 million in levy capacity, but could play a role in upping values slightly for future budgets — provided the development yields the same results as North Adams.
That need for increasing values gives a level of urgency to the Waterstone proposal but it is a far cry from what the land is intended to be. It would also take away an opportunity for the major development the city needs in order to raise the levy ceiling significantly. The 16.5 acre property is one of the largest — if not the largest — available industrial locations. It is also, however, hindered by environmental concerns because of pollution left behind by General Electric.
The Pittsfield Economic Development Authority was put in charge of the property to redevelop it as industrial space, and the land is zoned that way. The most recent concept for the park was to use the planned Berkshire Innovation Center as a springboard for other spinoffs. The BIC is a shared center with a number of manufacturers and educational institutions on board to provide access to high-tech equipment for research and development.
That project has hit a funding holdup but organizers say they are confident the funding gap will be overcome. If not, however, the project may have to be significantly scaled back. But recently Project Manager Rod Jane said the agencies who have signed on remain committed to it and are hoping for additional state funding to the tune of $3 million to get the project off the ground.
Walmart has specifically eyed that site for a number of years, so it is unlikely that it will want to develop elsewhere. There are still other industrial sites on the property, none as large as the teens parceled eyed by Waterstone.
For most who have weighed in on the debate so far, it is a question of "settling." Is the city going to give up its largest piece of industrial land with a storied history, and in its center, for a Walmart? Are there any other viable options for the location?
The Waterstone plan may very well be a step toward solving some of the city's more immediate issues with environmental concerns on the site and increasing values but others are wondering if project will stymie future growth. Then again, the land has been available for two decades and still hasn't been developed.
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