Even as an army of workers prepare the Medford Super Walmart for its mid-August debut, merchants along Center Drive are gearing up for an influx of customers.
Storefronts that went empty in the South Gateway area when the building bust plunged the Rogue Valley into the Great Recession are now finding new tenants and survivors are expanding hours and store footprints.
Walmart was a major influence when Artisan Bakery operator Scott Brechtel pushed out the wall into the former Island Juice location in a $60,000 expansion that added 1,400 square feet and 30 seats to his business.
"I moved into this location eight years ago because we were anticipating this Walmart being built — supposedly two years after I moved in. So I've been anticipating and hoping for this to come to pass. Now it finally has."
In that time, Brechtel has increased his staff from three to eight and added breakfast and lunch offerings to his pastry selections.
"We've built a pretty good name in the valley and decided it was time to expand," Brechtel said. "The customer count and traffic flows Walmart brings should justify expanding. All the people moving toward Walmart will say 'There's a bakery right there, I didn't know there was a bakery there.' "
Before now, Brechtel said, the biggest boost to foot traffic — and sales — came from the opening of U.S. Cellular Park in 2007.
"We get a ton of people from soccer, softball and baseball tournaments," he said. "That's definitely been good for the area."
At present, Artisan Bakery runs from the early morning to 7 p.m., but Brechtel expects that to change.
"A lot of people are like me and have a sweet tooth after dinner," he said.
Mattress Land struck at just the right time when it decided to open a second Medford store and moved into 3,000 square feet in the former Hollywood Video shop.
"We saw a couple of opportunities in south Medford with no other mattress stores in the vicinity," said owner/manager Tyler Stutz. "We see Walmart as a big traffic boost. We definitely expect an uptick and more exposure."
After checking out the possibilities along the Highway 62 corridor, Mattress Land turned its attention to the south side.
"We came upon this location in March and started negotiating," Stutz said. "The prices were a big factor; it's definitely more affordable in this part of town.
A few doors down from the Artisan Bakery, Subway Sandwiches warmed up for Walmart's arrival by adopting the retail giant's 24-hour approach.
"We went 24 hours a couple of months ago in anticipation of that happening," said Krystle Watson, a regional supervisor for Southern Oregon Subway, which operates 14 shops from Ashland to Grants Pass.
"We'll get a huge flow from Walmart," Watson said. "Our Delta Waters (Road) location behind Walmart (in north Medford) gets a big flow of Walmart employees and we see a lot of activity, especially on Black Friday (when shoppers line up in the wee hours.)"
Subway opened the Center Drive location in 2005 when its former Riverside Avenue and Barnett Road store was displaced by Walgreens. But after the south Medford freeway Interchange was shifted south, Subway found itself just two stoplights from the exit. The store has 15 to 20 employees, and sometimes borrows workers from its other stores.
"Sales have gone through the roof since we switched to 24 hours," Watson said. "We don't feel a rush or pressure from Walmart coming; we're ready — bring it on."
Two years ago, Ashland-based Yogurt Hut opened a second location on Center Drive and now has a third planned for the Northgate Centre Marketplace on the other end of town.
Yogurt Hut's staff has grown to 10 people, and manager Denise Powell anticipates lots of new customers.
"We try to pull as many people in from the (U.S. Cellular) fields," Powell said. "But weather is the main determining factor for us. We're looking forward to a hot weekend and we're prepared."
Pizza Hut is leaving its longtime Riverside location behind for new, but smaller, digs on Center Drive, relocating 17 workers. Its new site will be in the strip of stores with the bakery and Subway.
"We're hoping to open on Aug. 14," said a Pizza Hut spokesman. "We're expecting to be busier over there."
Before TownePlace Suites SpringHill Suites opened down the street in 2007, Center Drive was primarily a pass-through zone behind the Rogue Federal Credit Union and Fred Meyer.
"In a small way, we've been off the beaten path," Brechtel said. "People used to come to Harry & David and Fred Meyer, but never went farther on Center Drive — we were standing alone. Once the two hotels were built, it definitely helped us. But what we really needed was another big draw on Center Drive, and what better draw is there than this Walmart?"
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail email@example.com.