Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- While the prospect of opening a new big-box store in an economically depressed section of town couldn't come at a better time for local government officials, the "biggest news story of 2011," as one Lee County official put it, won't come without its challenges.

With construction more than two-thirds complete on the East Albany Walmart store, city and county officials are already excited about the opportunities the store will bring, in terms of jobs and sales and property tax revenue.

While Wal-Mart Store Inc.'s proprietary information is a closely guarded secret, both Albany Mayor Willie Adams and Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff "Bodine" Sinyard have said that the facility will add between 300 and 500 new jobs to the area once the doors open, with sales tax collections expected to be significant.

As an added bonus, the store is coming with a number of other businesses tagging along. Despite repeated attempts to reach Wal-Mart's corporate officials to ask whether leases had been finalized with these businesses, no calls have been returned.

With the store expected to open in April or May, city code officials will likely begin an inspection process of the property soon.

The only additional business that has filed a request for a business license with the city finance department is Murphy Oil, which will put a gas pump on the premises.

While the news of an East Albany Walmart store is welcome and long overdue -- city and county officials have been in talks with Wal-Mart's corporate offices for a store for more than a decade -- the store will also bring additional challenges for the area.

Winston Oxford, the head of Lee County's Economic Development Authority, says that government officials there have been keeping a close eye on developments with the East Albany store even before plans were ever finalized for the project.

"In 2006 and 2007, before any plans were set in stone over there, it was estimated that when the East Albany store opened, it would reduce revenues at the Ledo Road store by 10 to 15 percent," Oxford said. "We're going to keep an eye on it and it's going to hurt, but we're not going to drown."

The subsequent impact on Lee County's sales tax collections -- which go to the Lee County Commission, the city of Leesburg, the city of Smithville, and the Lee County School System -- could be significant.

Depending on growth and other factors, Oxford estimates that the total impact on the county's sales tax collections for all three entities could be between $350,000 to $500,000 per year, just from having the East Albany store open its doors.

That loss, he says, will hopefully be mitigated now that the new Publix has opened on U.S. 19 North and, best case scenario, the county will face losing just $125,000.

And while some have spoken of concerns that the Ledo Road store will close, officials familiar with the store and Wal-Mart Stores Inc's continued involvement with it, say that the store -- which by some estimates brings in around $130 million in revenue yearly and is consistently one of the retailer's top grossing revenue generators in the state, isn't going anywhere.

That's not the case, however, in Mitchell County where the company has announced plans to close the Camilla Walmart store.

That store, which is still open, is slated to be shuttered as a result of the East Albany store opening.

Mitchell County Administrator Bennett Adams said that the situation isn't ideal, but that the county is in a position to mitigate the loss of the store, should it close.

"We've been fortunate to have some companies step up and commit to our community and, in my opinion, we'll be fine if that store closes," Adams said. "It's a bit early to try and guess what the impact will be, though."

Adams said that the county has been fortunate to have an ethanol plant come online, the Equity company grow and a new regional tractor manufacturer open up shop all within the last five years.

"No one wants to have an empty building on a major highway coming into their city, but we should be OK," Adams said. "It may hurt Mitchell County in general in terms of the jobs and the availability of retail stores, but in terms of the government, it shouldn't really impact us."

The store will also come with a price tag for the local taxpayer. Up to $900,000 will be reimbursed to the developer by the city of Albany and Dougherty County for road, sidewalk and intersection improvements to help the flow of traffic in the area.

Costs could also climb if crime trends gathered from 2001 when the Ledo Road Walmart opened, hold true.

According to information gathered from the Dougherty District Attorney's Office, their caseload dropped by 1,800 cases that year.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Heather Lanier said that the office is already working a felony burglary case related to the property and the store has yet to even open.

But for the first time in a long while, it appears that Mitchell and Lee counties' loss, will be Albany and Dougherty County's gain as customers from both of those stores are expected to take advantage of the new East Albany location.

Ted Clem, the president of the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission, said that the store will fill a void that has been hampering the quality of life for those living on the eastern side of the county for decades.

"The largest impact will be in the employment opportunities the store will bring with it, both in terms of the store itself and the outlying business it will bring with it," Clem said. "There is and has been a need for that type of retail installation for quite a while."