Four years have passed since Oxford Mayor Leon Smith announced a Sam’s Club was moving to the site. Though not a single hour of construction has taken place there, officials say a Sam’s Club is still coming.
But not for a while. The sluggish economy and the presidential election could keep the retail chain from coming anytime soon, officials and experts say.
Bill Wertz, spokesman for Wal-Mart, which owns Sam’s Club, said Monday the Oxford site had not been abandoned.
“We do have an interest in that area, that property,” Wertz said. “We’re working on plans for it but the timing is uncertain.”
Wertz said he did not know why construction at the site has been delayed for so long.
“It’s typical to have a number of projects in the planning stage, and it depends on the investment capital budget each year on which project moves first,” Wertz said. “It’s not necessarily tied to the economy.”
Last year, a former Wal-Mart spokesman, Glen Wilkins, told The Star that the company was waiting for more improvement in the sagging economy, which in recent years has hurt small business, among others.
That matters to Sam’s Club, a chain of membership-only retail and warehouse clubs where people can buy products in bulk, because small businesses make up much of its customer-base.
“They do market to small business but to general consumers as well,” said Brent Cunningham, associate professor of marketing at Jacksonville State University.
Many big-box retailers in the last few years like Wal-Mart’s stores have been reining in expansion efforts because of the recession, Cunningham said, which hit in 2008.
“They are not spending money,” Cunningham said. “But I don’t see them canceling the project all together – it’s just on hold – they just don’t want to give out a completion date so they won’t be tied to it.”
Fred Denney, Oxford city project manager, said he has not heard anything from Wal-Mart concerning possible cancellation of the project.
“They own the property … they’ve got a big investment there,” Denney said.
Wertz also acknowledged that Wal-Mart owns the Oxford property.
While Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club have taken hits in recent years, this year they have reported some improvement. According to Wal-Mart’s second quarter numbers, the company’s consolidated sales increased 4.5 percent from the same period last year.
Political uncertainty has kept Sam’s Club from initiating construction this past year, Denney conjectured, because businesses want to have a better idea of where the economy is headed — and who is leading it — before they make firm plans.
“I feel like after the election, things will turn around,” Denney said, referring to the upcoming presidential election.
Cunningham agreed that politics might be factoring in Wal-Mart’s current business strategy.
“I think things will be freed up after the election,” Cunningham said. “There will be some certainty in the market once the election is over and that will lead them to a decision.”
The controversy surrounding a possible American Indian mound near the Oxford site might have also caused Wal-Mart to delay the project, Cunningham added. After the Sam’s Club was announced, the city of Oxford began digging up dirt at the base of the mound for the project site – until complaints about the mound possibly being an ancient Indian burial site forced the city to halt the digging.
Wal-Mart has previously denied that the delay of the Sam’s Club construction was a result of the controversy.
Still, earlier this year, the city finished an agreement with an Oklahoma Indian tribe to relocate stones atop the mound to another site, thereby removing any further controversy about the area.
“Wal-Mart was associated with that development, they may have wanted to distance themselves,” Cunningham said. “But now that things have settled, they could start construction back.”