The biggest company in the world inquires about a coliseum spot

Its roots are in small towns and the suburbs, but retailing megagiant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is scouting city locations Ñ and even inquiring about Portland's Memorial Coliseum.

Wal-Mart wasn't mentioned when Paul Allen's Oregon Arena Corp., which manages the coliseum for the city of Portland, proposed plans in May for converting the 40-year-old building to a so-called 'urban home center,' housing two big-box retailers inside the 350-foot square, glass-walled coliseum.

Mark Edlen, a principal in Gerding/Edlen Development Co., which was retained by Allen's group to look at coliseum redevelopment possibilities, said when they contacted prospective tenants, 'we talked to the logicals Ñ the Costcos, Home Depots, the Targets.'

The list didn't include Wal-Mart. Edlen added, however, 'We have had an inquiry from Wal-Mart.'

Amy Hill, Wal-Mart's regional community affairs director, wouldn't confirm such a contact when she was in Portland last week.

But Wal-Mart is making its way into the cities. Two former Macy's stores in Los Angeles now house Wal-Marts, and the company is building a three-story store, including a grocery and a floor of parking, in Salt Lake City.

The company also filed plans last week for its first Chicago store, which will open in the spring of 2005 on the city's west side, provided it gets city government approval.

A story last week in The Detroit News quoted a city development official who said that Wal-Mart had been looking at sites in Detroit, including Tiger Stadium, vacant since the major league baseball team moved to Comerica Park three years ago.

Wal-Mart, founded 40 years ago in Arkansas and now both the world's largest retailer and the biggest company in the world, built its empire by bringing expanded shopping opportunities to small towns.

Now, Hill said, 'things have really changed É there's an opportunity to serve more urban markets.'

She said she wouldn't use the word 'aggressive' to describe Wal-Mart's pursuit of urban locations for its stores. 'I think as the opportunity presents itself,' she said.

In the Portland metro area, Wal-Mart has stores on Southeast 82nd Avenue and in Wood Village. Planning commissions in both Oregon City and Hillsboro have rejected Wal-Mart's proposed plans for stores in the two cities; in both cases, Wal-Mart has filed appeals.

Statewide, Wal-Mart has 27 stores, six of them 'Supercenters' that include grocery stores. There's also a gigantic distribution center in Hermiston. According to a fact sheet provided by Hill, 9,010 people work in Oregon Wal-Marts, and the company pays $12.3 million a year in state and local taxes in Oregon.

Edlen pointed out that consideration of the coliseum's future still is in the preliminary stages. 'I think the first step is for the city to decide what they want to use the building for.'

Should the city opt for Oregon Arena's proposal, he said, then it's time to look carefully at the mix of tenants that would make the most sense. 'The discussion would have to revolve around what other goods and services are provided in the vicinity É the last thing we want to do is put tenants in that would dampen the business of existing retailers.'

If the neighborhood already had a large home improvement store, for example, it wouldn't make sense to add another one, he said.

Even within a 5-mile radius, however, Edlen said, 'there are no large-format retailers to speak of.'

The demand probably is there, generated by increasing settlement in the Pearl District just across the Willamette River and by the continuing popularity of close-in housing on the east side.

'Right now within five miles of the coliseum there's no Costco, no Home Depots,' he said. 'You talk about the last frontier for these retailers, that's right.'

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