May 30, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"We definitely plan to place a superstore in La Grande in the next two years," a Wal-Mart spokesperson said Thursday.

Amy Hill, director of community affairs for Wal-Mart's western region, admitted it "could be a two-year process, but if everything is approved, we want to open in 2004."

It was the first definitive statement from a Wal-Mart official that the Bentonville, Ark., company plans to open a supercenter in La Grande — proposed for a 51-acre site across Island Avenue from the chain's present store.

It has been no secret that Wal-Mart consultants have been studying putting a "big box" store in the La Grande-Island City area.

The site, owned by developer Mike Becker, is in Union County and zoned R-2 (rural residential).

The land is outside the city limits of La Grande and Island City and would have to be taken into the urban growth area and then annexed before La Grande would extend city services.

The county commissioners will have a pubic hearing at 10 a.m. Wednesday on a consultant's population forecast. The predicted rate of growth will have a lot to do with justifying whether or when the urban growth area is extended, said Mike Hyde, director of La Grande's Community Development Department.

Even if planners and city councils in La Grande and Island City approve extending their urban growth areas, the state requires a 45-day wait and notice before a public hearing is held on the issue of extending the growth boundaries.

Wal-Mart's Hill was traveling Thursday and did not have specific details about the store planned here, but said a supercenter typically can have up to 200,000 square feet of space.

"We basically combine the traditional Wal-Mart store with a full-service grocery store. There will be a pharmacy, things like one-hour photo development," Hill said.

She said she didn't know if there were plans for a gas station for the La Grande store. Wal-Mart normally leases gas outlets at its superstores to Tesoro under the name Mira Star gas. Tesoro has a division headquarters in Seattle, she said.

Hill said that because of planning issues, "the process could take longer than it does in some areas, but we intend to file an application to build the superstore in the next several months."

Wal-Mart is not expanding in the local market without doing its homework, Hill said.

"We have done our demographic research internally, including studying our own customers' demand. It makes sense to have a superstore in La Grande. There is a lot of rural area that is now underserved," Hill said.

A consulting team, hired by a company called CLC of Spokane, has met with La Grande, Island City and Union County officials to address such issues as transportation, state land use goals and environmental concerns for the nearby Grande Ronde River.

Representatives of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development and from

the Oregon Department of Transportation participated in the meetings.

Reach Ray Linker at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it