WESLEY CHAPEL — Need evidence Florida’s economy has emerged from the recession? Look no farther than the intersection of State Road 54 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, where Wal-Mart Stores is building a giant new supercenter slated to open this summer.
Wal-Mart has started hiring 300 new associates for the store, which will be the second new supercenter to open this year in the Tampa market. A new supercenter in Lutz, just off Interstate 275 at Bearss Avenue, opens today.
The company also replaced its Largo store in January with a new supercenter built across the street. On the same day, it opened a new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market store in Clearwater.
The company also has two new Neighborhood Mmarkets under construction in Tampa and a third planned for New Port Richey. One is the takeover of a former Sweetbay on Gunn Highway; it’s expected to open in August — which means the company will open five new stores in one year.
Those five stores will combine for about 550,000 square feet of retail space. And the retailer is planning another 120,000-square-foot supercenter in Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood.
“The economy is growing, and that makes companies more willing to invest in expansion,” said John Fleming, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation.
Nationally, Wal-Mart expects to add 18 million square feet of retail space this year.
Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said Wal-Mart’s ongoing expansion in the Tampa Bay market could be an early indicator of a greater retail expansion in the market. Free-standing supercenters can be developed much more quickly than a new shopping center with multiple tenants, he said.
After five years of no activity, retailers in shopping centers are only now beginning to expand again. “The occupancy levels are getting back to pre-recession levels, which suggests we could see a lot of new construction soon,” he said.
Wal-Mart last opened a new supercenter in Pasco County in Land O’ Lakes in 2009. The Wesley Chapel store had been in the works for a decade. The company postponed construction until Pasco County completed the S.R. 54 widening project in front of the site. Also in 2011, Wal-Mart settled litigation between the company, the owners of Wiregrass and the county about road-building issues within the development.
The company won approval from the county for its site plan in 2011 but did not apply for a building permit until last summer.
A few months ago the company increased its capital budget for new store construction in the U.S. by $500 million to accelerate the development of its Neighborhood Market stores and a new line of even smaller stores, called Wal-Mart Express. The company still plans to open 115 new supercenters this year.
Bill Simon, CEO and president of Wal-Mart U.S., explained the strategy on May 15 when the company released its first//-//quarter earnings. “We went from the plan that we reported in October and then doubled it in January,” he said. “So we’re going to build about 300 small stores, 200 Neighborhood Markets and 100 Express.”
At the start of the year, Florida had 319 Wal-Mart stores — second only to Texas’ 499. The number includes Sam’s Club stores and other discount stores.
Wal-Mart demolished a long-vacant Eckerd Drugs at Ridge Plaza in New Port Richey this year and submitted plans for a 42,000-square-foot Neighborhood Market. The site plan is currently under review.
The company owns two large undeveloped parcels in Pasco County. In 2006, the company paid $4.8 million for 23 acres just south of Dade City, at U.S. 301 and Clinton Avenue. The Dade City store is 30 years old, so it likely will be replaced by a new supercenter.
Wal-Mart Stores has also been sitting on vacant land in West Pasco since 2005.