COLUMBIA — A lagging economic growth and a chaotic road network have helped to leave the Bush River Road corridor behind for retail growth, according to area commercial real estate experts.
The struggles of the area, just a few interstate exits north of downtown Columbia, are highlighted by last week's decision by Walmart to close its store on Bush River Road near the intersection of highways known as Malfunction Junction. The store will close Feb. 5 at the latest.
Walmart cited consistent lagging sales for the store closure, which is a rare act for the nation's top big-box retailer. The Bush River store was considered for closure in part because the company has so many alternative locations for Columbia-area shoppers. Two Walmarts are located five miles north and south of the Bush River store.
All employees will be eligible to transfer to the company's other 10 Midlands locations as the company seeks to retain its staff, Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene said. The company did not disclose how many employees worked at the Bush River store.
Losing the store is a mark against both the Bush River Village shopping center and for the area, said Patrick Palmer, director of retail services for NAI Columbia.
Other retail companies are likely to be leery of jumping in where Walmart has pulled out.
"When Walmart abandons a market that is a pretty big sign to the rest," Palmer said.
Other uses of the big retail space could be the answer for the shopping center. Palmer suggests that a call center would be a candidate for the space, while J.P. Scurry of Crosland Barnes Group wonders if a gym or trampoline park would consider the space.
Walmart is the biggest national retailer to leave the Bush River Road corridor but far from the first.
In the last dozen years, the retail spaces in the area lost Kmart, Belk department store and restaurants, including Fuddruckers and Ruby Tuesday's.
National retailers have not moved to use those available spaces, and many smaller retail spaces along the road are vacant.
What has happened to Bush River Road has happened to many of the formerly popular retail strips not far from downtowns, Palmer said. As growth and new homebuilding moves further out from the city center, many retailers follow, leaving a struggling area in its wake.
As Dutch Square mall lost retail tenants, the Harbison area further Interstate 26 from downtown blossomed into the area's top retail corridor. That includes a Walmart and Sam's Club location, one of 10 sites the company still maintains in the Columbia market.
That supply of other retail locations was one reason that the company thought that it made sense to close the underperforming Bush River Road site, according to Keene.
Harbison has abundant new home construction in the Irmo and Lake Murray area to draw from, which is seen as a major benefit, Palmer said.
"Retailers just gravitate to the newest and biggest," he said.
A look at the demographics that often drive retail decisions shows how desirable Harbison is over Bush River Road for attracting shoppers.
According to data from NAI Columbia, the area within three miles of the Bush River Road Walmart, considered a good measure of likely customers, has an average household income estimated to be more than $55,000.
The same three-mile radius around the Harbison location has an average income of just above $72,000. To Walmart and many other retailers, that difference makes Harbison the much more attractive destination.
Harbison also is well-connected to a wide area, so much so that it can become overcrowded with traffic at times. The current interchanges in the Bush River Road area don't seem to function nearly as well.
For traffic coming out from downtown, the exit off I-126 leads straight to Dutch Square but not close to the Walmart site. The other interstate intersection also don't seem to function well, Scurry said.
An early portion of the project to fix Malfunction Junction could address this flow. Redesigning the intersections in the area for more efficiency, including the connections to Bush River and Broad River roads, is an early part of the massive highway project that gets into construction this year.
While all that work goes on in the coming years, however, the area's traffic flow could well get worse before it gets better, dissuading shoppers from other parts of Columbia from visiting.
While better highway connections might help, there are not a lot of immediate other answers to improve retail life on Bush River Road.
Economic developers do not generally give tax incentives to retail projects, said Jeff Ruble, economic development director for Richland County.
Those credits tend to be focused toward industrial clients, and a question of fairness would come up quickly if retailers get one.
If one goes to Walmart, Ruble points out, then Target is likely to call up and seek one just after that.