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Lake and Valley Clarion NewspaperGenesee Country MagazineClarion Communications

Key battle over Wal-Mart superplaza

The Town of Geneseo proved to be sensitive to development issues even before the Wal-Mart plaza proposal arrived. The rezoning of the SEL property near Route 390, Exit 8 was frequently in the news. The developers had hoped to have an industrial site on land which was in the Town of Geneseo, but also in the Livonia School District.

The anti-development faction ultimately got their way and the SEL property remains undeveloped to this day. Ironically, one of the stalwarts among the anti-developers would become the biggest advocate of the Wal-Mart/Wegmans proposal: Geneseo Town Supervisor Walter Kingston.

Kingston was opposed in principle to allowing villages to annex land for industrial and commercial development, but he set that principle aside when the Wal-Mart/Wegmans proposal emerged. Throughout the summer of 1990 there had been scattered reports of someone with a southern accent surveying Geneseo Main Street businesses, inquiring about potential interest in a Route 20A plaza. The big story broke with the December 27, 1990 Clarion headline, "Wal-Mart Eyes Geneseo Site." Jack Hanchrow was the representative of the Alabama-based plaza developer, Polar-BEK & Baker.

Kingston was quoted as willing to immediately cooperate with village annexation of the proposed plaza site, in order to expedite provision of water and sewer services. But there was also an element of hesitancy, expressed in the front page sidebar, "Can Main Street Compete?"

Some of the business owners, like hairdresser Roger Least, welcomed the Wal-Mart proposal. From that week on, for the next two years, opposing opinions about Wal-Mart seldom left the headlines. It is noteworthy that throughout the controversy, there was little opposition to the Wegmans component of the proposal. Opponents focused their fears and ammunition upon Wal-Mart's notorious discount pricing.

The January 10, 1991 Clarion reported Hanchrow's projections for 664 jobs and $900,000 in annual sales tax revenue. The Livingston County share of the latter would eventually play an important role in future county economic development.

Wal-Mart's staunchest opponents turned out to be Mayor Richard Hatheway and Trustee Lee Bryant. Because of property ownership near the plaza, Trustee Mike Bishop was forced to abstain on plaza-related votes, resulting in the 2-to-2 deadlock of Hatheway and Bryant versus the pro-plaza trustees William Genesky and Robert Yull.

The deadlock stalled all action on the annexation proposal and stopped proposals to provide the proposed plaza with water or sanitary sewer. The February 14, 1991 Clarion reported the village board's radical suggestions for improving the plaza site plan: turning the store fronts away from the highway. Hanchrow was outraged and announced "suspension" of plaza work.

On February 28, the village received an 1,800 signature petition beseeching the board to cooperate with the developers. On March 21, National Realty, landlord at the Ames Plaza, got into the act with their own proposal to retain Wegmans by building an addition onto the existing plaza. Nothing came of it.

The intensity of opposition to the plaza on the part of the Mayor and Bryant was matched by the intensity of support for the plaza on the town board, and in the county Board of Supervisors. Feelings on the Geneseo Town Planning Board were mixed, but after a year of debate, the planning board okayed a completed environmental impact statement for the plaza. in a 5-to-2 vote reported January 16, 1992.

With a village election looming, Hatheway announced in January 1992 that negotiations with Polar-BEK & Baker would not continue. Two village board seats (Bill Genesky's and Bob Yull's) would be open. The Republican caucus yielded a mixed slate consisting of incumbent Bishop and pro-plaza candidate Dick Gallivan. The Democrats fielded candidate Tom Mix, likewise pro-plaza.

On February 20, the town threatened to sue the village unless sewer was provided to the plaza. The lawsuit actually commenced the following week amidst anticipation over the upcoming election. The March 12 Clarion reported a 200 citizen standing room only crowd which jammed the Geneseo Building for an informational meeting on the plaza proposal. There was rowdy confrontation between plaza supporters and opponents. Developer Alex Baker offered the village an outright $250,000 bonus to allow the water connection.

In a record turnout, the March 1992 Geneseo Village election became a virtual referendum for the superplaza. Mix led the ticket with 657 votes; Gallivan was second with 600 votes. Incumbent Bishop lost with 520 votes, followed by independent (anti-plaza) candidate Gail Door with 409 votes.

In a landmark April 6, 1992 village board meeting, the new board majority, Gallivan, Mix and Genesky, in two 3-to-2 votes, enacted the legislation which would provide the plaza with public water and sewer. In the process any claim on the $250,000 bonus or any requirement that the plaza be annexed into the village was relinquished-and thus all future village property tax revenue was surrendered.

The plaza advocates gained another significant victory, reported April 23, when an environmental suit against the Town Planning Board approvals was dismissed in court.

The June 11, 1992 Clarion had a photo of construction equipment lined up at the plaza site and noted, '2nd lawsuit doesn't stall superplaza.'

Residential property owner Leslie Post, standing like one of the last survivors at the Alamo, was swept over with a 3-to-2 village board vote to condemn a water easement across his front lawn. Post was offered $7,000 for an easement appraised at $2,000.

On July 30 Town Planning Board chairman Joanne Conrad resigned, claiming that building permit practices were eased for the plaza applications. A second headline in the same paper proclaimed that "Traffic problems [were] anticipated" along Route 20A.

But as actual construction at the plaza site got underway, the issue dropped out of the news.

On April 22, 1993, The Clarion featured the ribbon cutting opening of the Wal-Mart/Wegmans superplaza, more correctly known as the "Genesee Valley Shopping Center." Participating were some the the plaza's chief supporters: Supervisor Kingston, Councilman David Dwyer, and village trustees Tom Mix, William Genesky and Richard Gallivan.

Even before the first dollar of sales tax was earned, in September of 1992 the county worked out an agreement with local school districts to cap its share of the sales tax contribution to school taxes at the 1991 [pre-Wal-Mart plaza] level. The ever increasing sale tax revenues derived largely from plaza transactions would henceforth be dedicated to funding county industrial infrastructure. The sucess of the superplaza is thus literally paving the way for future development of the county.

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