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S. Valley Walmart completes remodeling

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than seven years ago, the southeast corner of Coors and Rio Bravo was still farmland.

Today, it’s a commercial hub of the South Valley, where someone can get their oil changed while they shop for groceries or knitting yarn, fill a prescription and eat fast food as part of a Walmart Supercenter experience.

“I think it’s a positive thing having the Walmart there,” said County Commissioner Art de la Cruz, who represents the South Valley and would like to see more development in the area. “We have very few options for shopping opportunities.”

The store, which opened in May 2005, marked its seventh year in business last week with the completion of a remodeling project. It’s something the chain does every seven years to keep stores fresh and competitive, store officials said.

Walmart bought the 20-acre field from the Wenk family in 2003 after months of protests by South Valley residents regarding the location. The land, annexed by the city, was once used to grow chile, bell peppers, squash, watermelons and alfalfa.

The store draws about 40,000 shoppers weekly, though not as much as the one at Coors and Interstate 40, store manager Elizabeth Garcia-Smith said.

The remodeling work involved rearranging locations for nonfood items in the supercenter, installing wooden floors beneath the clothing area and new cash registers, hanging blue signs from the ceiling to designate shopping sections and repolishing stained concrete aisles. Vendors, such as the nail salon, remodeled their own areas.

But none of that will matter to Marcia Fernandez, who refuses to shop there.

Fernandez was part of the unsuccessful fight against the store, and she opposes any other development on agricultural land in the South Valley. She knows she’s among a minority of people who don’t shop there, mainly on principle against the corporation’s business practices as a whole and the fact that the store sits on land annexed by the city, which receives the tax revenues while the surrounding land is still in unincorporated Bernalillo County.

Fernandez, who lives in the Armijo neighborhood a few miles north of Rio Bravo but will go out of her way to shop elsewhere, said she hardly knows anybody who feels the same way.

“(For many) it’s so handy not to drive so far” for groceries, she said.

She said she’ll continue to fight against development of the irrigated “floor of the valley” because that’s the area where the aquifer is recharged.

“We could grow food here,” she said. “But once you pave over farmland, it’s gone forever.”

The addition of a Walmart, along with the rapid residential growth of the Southwest Mesa over the last decade, has brought increased traffic. So far, however, few new businesses have opened in the area.

“I’ve seen a few places open up here,” said Raul Acosta, Walmart field manager for the region, which includes Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. “I was hoping for a restaurant.”

In 2006, the Rio Bravo Square shopping center on the northwest corner of Coors and Rio Bravo underwent a $175,000 renovation, citing an increase in interest there since the arrival of Walmart.

In 2008, a state District Court judge ruled an 80-acre shopping mall and housing development planned south of the Walmart plaza could go forward. The project proposed 525,000 square feet of commercial retail space, but it apparently has stalled.

Earlier this year, $1 million plans to put a traffic light and intersection at Coors and Las Estancias south of Walmart using public money had been placed on a Bernalillo County Commission consent agenda, though it was not clear if the landowners trying to build on farmland south of Walmart also would have to bear some of the cost. The item was removed from the agenda and has apparently not been revisited.

De la Cruz said the soured economy has kept the project from proceeding.

“I hope it will be back,” said de la Cruz, who hopes for a bookstore and a Starbucks, common in other parts of town, along with chain restaurants like Applebee’s or Chili’s.

“I don’t know why people haven’t invested more in the South Valley,” he said, adding that business will bring an economic tax base and jobs.

But he said there is still a place to maintain the farmland and smaller businesses.