Cherriots, Walmart at odds over potential transit center in south Salem

Walmart on Southeast Commercial Street worries it could lose more than 140 parking spaces if Cherriots pursues its transit station. (Special to Salem Reporter/Moriah Ratner)

Update Sept. 12: Cherriots and Walmart have not yet struck a deal. The two sides met and have agreed to extend the window to Oct. 11 before a deal must be struck.

Original story below.

There may be a sale this week at Walmart, but the retail giant isn’t very happy about it.

Cherriots has reportedly spent months working to buy a large portion of the parking lot at Walmart’s Southeast Commercial Street store. It wants to build a new transit center to serve the growing south end of the city.

Walmart, however, wants Cherriots to pull in the reins. Representatives say the store would lose 144 parking spaces, setting up a struggle for the store, its nearly 220 workers and the thousands of shoppers who visit daily.

Cherriots and Walmart did have a deadline to get a deal done by Sept. 9. Both sides were scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon. Without a deal, however, Cherriots has threatened eminent domain.

 “We have serious and grave concerns about the continued operation of our store and the thousands of customers we serve each week,” said Deborah Herron, a spokesperson for the Arkansas-based retailer.

To Cherriots, the lot could be more than a place for shoppers to park their cars. It plans to transform the area, where there is one bus stop today, into its South Salem Transit Center. The center would be a hub for more buses — up to five at a time — and more routes for the growing city sector.

Steve Dickey, Cherriots’ director of transportation development, said there are currently too few buses and routes in south Salem, which creates winding, circuitous trips that, for many people, take more than hour.

“This will allow us to have a connecting point,” he said. “It will cut travel time at least by one-third.”

Cherriots would not disclose how much the project would cost, saying that its estimates are now a couple years old. The new center would not be as large as similar centers in downtown Salem or Keizer.

First, it has to acquire the property. Oregon law allows some public bodies to use eminent domain to take private property as long as it is in the public interest. A deal can be made or the property can be seized through the courts. In either case, a private landowner is owed payment.

Cherriots hasn’t used eminent domain in nearly two decades, according to General Manager Allan Pollock, but that’s what may be next. The district has been working to acquire this land since 2015.

Pollock said he hopes both sides can come to an agreement. He adds that the new transit center would benefit businesses in the area.

“Most places look at it as a positive,” he said.

Sarah Keady, store manager at the south Salem Walmart, said the store could be hurt by losing chunks of its parking lot. The retailer spent $3 million renovating the store and the parking lot last year.

Keady also worried the store’s garden department, a revenue driver for the store, could be hurt since much of the department uses the parking lot. But she added she’s not certain because she’s unclear what the transit center will end up looking like.

“We haven’t seen the final details but that was the site they were talking about taking,” she said.

Cherriots officials wouldn’t disclose what it is offering Walmart, but its own appraiser told the transit district board in April that the lot was worth $787,000. The board voted then to pursue the property, through negotiations or eminent domain.

Walmart, for its part, feels Cherriots has not communicated well and has not been transparent.

Portland attorney Greg Hathaway has spoken at public meetings twice in the last five months, saying Walmart has barely heard anything about the project until shortly before the transit board voted to acquire the parking lot.

“The district board never held any public process that we’re aware of that vetted public comment in terms of the alternative sites that might be available to accommodate this particular use,” he said.

There is also the matter of price. Hathaway said Walmart has hired its own appraiser who believes the property could be worth twice as much as what Cherriots has offered.

And, Hathaway added, Cherriots still has to undergo a site review process through the city of Salem and get a conditional use permit before starting construction.

“Our position is that it’s premature for (Cherriots) to proceed with any acquisition of this property for the South Salem Transit Center,” Hathaway told the transit board in August. “I can’t imagine spending public funds to acquire this piece of property when there’s no guarantees that you’re actually going to be able to do this transit center on this particular piece of property until there’s final land use approval.”

Have a story tip? Reach out to reporter Troy Brynelson: [email protected], 503-357-6190 or @TroyWB.