By Dawn Bormann
Exactly how, Mission residents asked Saturday, is a Walmart compatible with an Aloft hotel?
It was one of many questions posed to developer Tom Valenti during a meeting designed to give residents an update on the Mission Gateway project. Valenti gave an update and let residents weigh in with questions. Many of the queries were about Walmart.
The anchor of the latest proposal is a 155,000 square foot Walmart. After more than an hour of presenting the history of the project and the specifics of the new design, Valenti took questions from the floor. Voices grew the most intense as questions focused on Walmart.
“I appreciate everything that you’ve put forward today and I really like all of your ideas. But to me – and no offense against Walmart — Aloft hotel and Walmart don’t go together,” said Michele Wooley. “Those are my concerns. I love everything except the Walmart part.”
She stopped shopping at the Walmart in Roeland Park because it is dirty, she said.
“I won’t go to this one if it looks like that,” Wooley said flatly.
The message seemed to resonate with many in the crowd, who questioned why Walmart would keep a new store clean if they hadn’t kept the Roeland Park store clean.
“I want the commitment that it will be clean,” Wooley said.
Valenti tried to alleviate the concerns.
“As the owner of the property, as the owner of the hotel, as the owner of the apartments, the last thing that I want to see is a Walmart that is any way resembling the one in Roeland Park,” he said. “I promise you that I will be an incredible pain in the ass to Walmart to make sure that their property is well-maintained.”
Valenti, referring to his financial investment, said he has “40 million reasons to make sure” it’s clean and up to date.
Walmart Public Affairs Director Ryan Irsik urged Wooley and others to let store management know about the problems. He committed to follow-up on the matter and said he would work to make sure the store was clean until it closed for good. “I will be following up with store management after this meeting,” Irsik said.
Irsik said relocating the store would expand jobs from 220 to 300. The new store would be open 24-hours and include a grocery, pharmacy and garden center. He said the company tried to expand at the old site, but it proved impossible for several reasons.
Others wanted to know more about the other retailers and office tenants being sought out for the center. “Have you had any further contact with Sprouts?” asked Frank Bruce, who has lived in Mission for 78 years.
Valenti described the interaction with Sprouts as “very negative.”
Bruce also asked if Valenti had reached out to places like Ruby Tuesday and even BNIM, a Kansas-City based architecture and design firm that recently captured headlines when it withdrew plans for a new home in downtown Kansas City after a controversial tax incentive package.
Valenti said he did reach out to a BNIM official. “They want to stay in the downtown,” Valenti said.
Valenti said they have identified two fine restaurants for the lobby level of the hotel. He declined to identify those groups. But he also acknowledged that the project delays – this will be the fourth go-round – have caused him to hold off on courting many small retailers.
“People will come to you and say, look, when you’re absolutely ready to go, come back and talk to us then,” he said. “We really think it would be in everybody’s best interest that we wait until we’ve got everything approved and we’re ready to go before we ramp up talking to people like Ruby Tuesday and others. But I believe that this will be a compelling destination. We had no problem before with the small stores and the small restaurants.”
Others wanted reassurances about the hotel.
“You keep referring to a hotel. That is a true hotel? It’s not a convalescence center or retirement village or anything like that?” asked Bill McCrea, a resident of Mission since 1958.
Valenti reassured McCrea that it was a real hotel. “I would say it’s the furthest thing from that. It’s an Aloft hotel,” he said. “We have gotten a letter approving the site from Starwood several months ago.”
Many questions reflected just how much the project has evolved over time. The 2013 incarnation called for building second-story retail space above Walmart. Valenti said the meetings have inspired many ideas and tweaks including one version that called for a green roof on Walmart. The green roof may not make it to a final version, he said, acknowledging that Walmart was concerned about liability and the city hadn’t viewed it as a critical deciding factor.
But on Saturday he wasn’t ready to rule out any ideas floated by the city in order to get to the finish line. He told residents that he’d like to start construction as soon as possible.
“We’re obviously willing to do something else or some things else to get this over the hump.”