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2009-05-27
Salinas, CA. Wal-Mart Pressures City Council To Reverse Big Box Ban

On March 17, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Citizen Wal-Mart had hired people to go out gathering signatures in Salinas, California to repeal a ban on superstores. Earlier that month the City Council in Salinas voted 5-2 to pass a new city ordinance banning giant superstores. This story traces back to early December, 2008, when it was announced that a former Home Depot at the Harden Ranch Plaza in Salinas had been sold to Wal-Mart for a reported $8 million. The 130,510 s.f. building had been empty for 4 years until Wal-Mart bought it. The giant retailer already has a discount store in Salinas, but insisted it needed two stores for this city of roughly 144,000 people. Wal-Mart already has a similarly-sized store on North Davis Road in Salinas. They also have a store 8 miles to the west in Marina, California. News of the purchase spurred Wal-Mart opponents into action. Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes wrote up a city ordinance that would prevent certain kinds of big box stores, including Wal-Mart, from building a supercenter. Lutes told the Monterey County Weekly that she believes the superstore will put a nearby Target and Safeway grocery store out of business. "They don't have any problem with shutting Safeway down," Lutes said. "Safeway is a California-based operation. The last thing we need is more California businesses going belly up." Lutes' ordinance simply bans stores 100,000 s.f. or larger which devote more than 5% of their square footage to grocery sales. The adoption of Lutes' ordinance was not the end of the story. A number of California cities and towns have adopted a similar size cap on superstores -- despite well-financed opposition by Wal-Mart. The retailer has gone to court to try to block such ordinances, but the courts have found that size caps are a legal zoning mechanism. Several days before the vote, a Wal-Mart spokesman tried to dodge the issue of whether or not the proposed ordinance would limit the company's plans, saying they hadn't nailed down how much square footage in their proposed new store would be committed to food. But Wal-Mart superstores can have 35% to 45% of their floor space set aside for groceries -- so the new ordinance clearly affects the company, which put its plans on hold when the ordinance passed. Wal-Mart claimed that a second store in Salinas would bring 230 jobs and $500,000 in sales tax. "Those type of ordinances are limiting to their retail opportunities," the Wal-Mart spokesman said. Councilwoman Lutes brought up this same issue of a big box ordinance in 2004, but the Council was scared away from the issue by Wal-Mart's lawyers. This time Lutes won the battle. There is no legal impediment for enacting such a zoning limit on the size of a structure, just as there is a limit on the height of buildings. The Harden Ranch Leasing Director told the Weekly that Wal-Mart was the only retailer willing to fill the empty parking lot after a four-year search. Harden Ranch now has an empty Circuit City to fill as well -- another casualty they can lay at the feet of Wal-Mart. Now the Leasing Director sounds desperate for a Wal-Mart. "Each day they are not open is a disaster for us." Based on the City Council's vote, the Leasing Director has an official disaster on his hands. Shortly after the ordinance was adopted, Wal-Mart decided to take the issue to the voters of Salinas. The company used what it calls its "Customer Action Network" (CAN)to begin an astro-roots effort to put the question of the Salinas ordinance on the ballot. Wal-Mart created a group called "Salinas Consumers for Choice." Despite the fact that Wal-Mart actually narrows consumer choice as smaller competitors die off, Wal-Mart likes to describe its interests as "consumer choice." The retailer has generated similar corporate-created groups in other communities where it has run into opposition to its growth plans. The Wal-Mart group collected enough signatures on a petition in front of its other store in Salinas to get the new ordinance placed as a citizen referendum on the city ballot. This week, The Californian reports that one Salinas City Council member has changed his mind, and is ready to give Wal-Mart what they want. Councilman Tony Barrera, who originally voted for the ban, said the cost of next November's ballot has made him consider switching his vote. The city estimates that it will cost $230,000 to hold Wal-Mart's election. The city council will vote next week whether to repeal the ordinance or put it before voters. "I'm wrestling with the idea of having to spend $230,000 or more on an election that's a gamble," Barrera told the media. "We don't know if it's going to win or not." The city is experiencing tough economic times, and Barrera thinks there are more important ways to spend city money. "It's not an issue of flip-flopping," Barrera said, "it's about using the city's money wisely." In April the group that Wal-Mart created, Salinas Consumers for Choice, turned in 7,195 signatures in favor of a referendum to repeal the ban. To get on the ballot, 4,600 signatures were needed. "Seven thousand is a high percentage of likely voters," Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue admitted. "The game hasn't started yet and they've already got three touchdowns. I hope the council will reverse its decision. We shouldn't be making policy on a case-by-case basis." But for Wal-Mart to get the ban reversed, it needs Barrera and one more vote. Councilman Steve Villegas, who voted for the ban, said he is not considering a switch. "Wal-Mart can outspend any city government in the United States," he said. "Cities say, 'We can't afford this, let's buckle and give them what they want.' They bully themselves into your town." Villegas explained that a Wal-Mart supercenter will be toxic to local merchants. "I'm willing to bet anyone a steak dinner that within two years we won't see a Safeway or Keepsake [Diamond Center] or Pet Fun store. What they sell is what Wal-Mart sells. We'll drown the city with unemployment."

What you can do: Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and Councilwoman Janet Barnes voted against the superstore ban. Wal-Mart desperately tried to defeat the ordinance. A senior manager for public affairs gave the City Council cards signed by 2,300 Wal-Mart customers. These cards were printed up by Wal-Mart, and pushed on customers who shopped at the existing Wal-Mart store in Salinas. Wal-Mart set up a little display table in their store, and asked shoppers to sign the card. But cards don't win votes, and very few of those 2,300 people would ever leave their homes to go to a City Council meeting for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart called its opponents "a special interest" group pursuing a "short-term goal." Wal-Mart claimed that its existing store in Salinas was "performing far beyond expectation and capacity," according to The Californian. But Councilwoman Lutes saw a bigger disaster if Wal-Mart opened. The local grocery worker unions warned city officials what would happen in Salinas if the Lutes' ordinance did not pass. "You bring in a Super Wal-Mart and within 24 hours stores will close down around the area," said a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has battled Wal-Mart supercenters across California and the nation. The Mayor complained that Lutes' proposal would send the wrong message to large stores who might have thoughts of opening up in Salinas. Readers are urged to email District 2 City Councilman Tony Barrera at: http://www.ci.salinas.ca.us/contact.cfm with the following message: "Dear Councilman Barrera, Don't let Wal-Mart push you into reversing your vote against the big box ban. Instead of acting like a merchant, Wal-Mart is now in the business of funding and directing community organizing efforts, trying to rewrite Salinas' zoning ordinances. It's a bad precedent for private corporations to try to rewrite city ordinances to suit their own business model. Make Wal-Mart fit into Salinas, not Salinas into Wal-Mart. This is the worst kind of a special interest ballot question, written and financed by one retailer. Wal-Mart has set up a Van Nys-based Customer Action Network to create the impression of a groundswell of local support for their company. But its just another form of corporate lobbying. Not content to merely dominate market share, Wal-Mart now wants to write your zoning code, and try to buy its way into Salinas with a second store. It is a matter of flip-flopping, and your vote switch sends the message that if a wealthy corporation wants to challenge a zoning ordinance, and has enough money, it can intimidate city officials to get what it wants. Don't change your vote. Stick with what felt right the first time. Salinas does not need more big box stores, and this Wal-Mart is not a form of economic development for your city. It's just a form of economic dislocation, because most of its sales will come from existing merchants. You were right the first time. Keep the ban on big boxes."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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