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Talent officials ponder future of Walmart site

Walmart will close its Talent store the evening before it opens a superstore in south Medford sometime in the fall, a company official said.

"We should know more about the timing of everything closer to the Medford store being finished," said Jennifer Spall, public affairs director for Walmart in Oregon and Washington. "I expect that will be late summer."

The firm does not announce dates until it is within 30 days of an opening or closing.

The store's pending closure prompted the City Council Wednesday to form a committee to explore options for filling the site and to continue talks with the company.

"I'm expecting more phone conversations," Planning Director Mark Knox said at Wednesday's meeting. "What I'm proposing is to actively engage with Walmart. We've had some dialogue."

Spall said she spoke with Mayor Bill Cecil and Knox in October. The firm has worked with officials in other cities to avoid unoccupied buildings.

"We had two stores in Washington that we re-tenanted. We sold them," said Spall. "In Mount Vernon, we worked with the mayor and his economic development director."

Walmart would like to sell the property, but would consider a lease, Spall said. A Walmart real estate division handles sales and leases.

Organizations that have purchased empty Walmart stores include home improvement and craft stores, other retailers, churches and nonprofits, Spall said. Some of the stores have been divided up and used by multiple tenants.

Other city concerns have included maintenance of the site's landscaping, irrigation and building and barriers to discourage trespassing if it is not leased or sold.

"We will work with them on that," said Spall.

Walmart opened the 90,000-square-foot store near Exit 21 on Interstate 5 in 1993. In 2003 it announced plans to close the store in two years before objections delayed construction of the south Medford Superstore.

Knox will be on the city committee along with Cecil, Councilman Sherman Lamb, Councilwoman Teresa Cooke and incoming City Manager Tom Corrigan.

Knox said the committee should focus on developing ideas for the site's use and how to start making pitches to prospective tenants.

Possible strategies might include a market assessment to identify potential users, a master plan showing parking and building scenarios and a city entrance master plan showing features including the Walmart building.

"There's a lot of redesign potential," said Knox. "You could have storefronts on three sides."

Across the country there were 142 vacant Walmarts either for sale or lease in October, according to the website New Rules Project.

Washington and Oregon usually don't have dark stores, said Spall. Currently there is just one in Port Angeles, Wash.

"The problem is the economy and the ability of someone to come and fill that space," said Knox.

Representatives of the Oregon's Economic Development Commission and Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. have indicated they want to help find tenants, Knox said.

"I'm hoping that Walmart will discuss this with the community," said Cecil. "I think we should look at more than just Walmart. I would like to see us develop an economic development plan."

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.