Livingston, CA. Despite Wal-Mart Pull-Out, City Still Searching For Big Boxes
Wal-Mart walked out on the city of Livingston, California, but it seems like officials have not learned their lesson.
On June 24, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had mysteriously dropped out of a superstore project in Livingston, leaving local officials holding the box. The story goes back at least two years. In November of 2008, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build a 162,797 s.f. superstore in Livingston, which describes itself as "a City on the move." City officials say their community is undergoing "a period of transition and transformation due to new residential and commercial development." This is code language for rapid sprawl development.
The city is located along one of California's major freeway arteries and is just two hours from San Francisco. Livingston is part of the Merced County Enterprise Zone, one of 23 such Zones in the State of California. The EZ program "targets economically distressed areas using special state and local incentives to promote business investment and job creation. By encouraging entrepreneurship and employer growth, the program strives to create and sustain economic expansion in California communities." Such zones provide EZ capital to developers looking for subsidies. That was enough to attract Wal-Mart to the site.
Instead of sustainable economic expansion, Livingston got a Wal-Mart application. From the beginning, Livingston officials couldn't stop bragging about their anticipated Wal-Mart. Located on 34 acres at the Hammatt Interchange on Highway 99, the development, inappropriately called Blueberry Crossing, was slated to have a Wal-Mart, plus a motel, restaurants and other retail commercial establishments. Everything but blueberries. This land had to be annexed into the City and by January of 2009, the site plan and environmental review process had begun.
Approximately 21% of the floor area was to be devoted to grocery sales. The Livingston Wal-Mart Supercenter was proposed to operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week. "It will bring approximately 450 jobs to Livingston," according to the city. "The average California Wal-Mart associate makes $11.41 per hour." City officials basically cut and pasted Wal-Mart's press release, and put it on their website.
In January of 2009, the City Council voted unanimously to hire a consultant to complete an environmental impact study for the project. Local officials were totally sold on the project. There were a few residents with mixed emotions, like Brandon Friesen, the former Mayor of Livingston, and the owner of a True Value hardware store. "I don't mind them coming in as long as they pay their way," Friesen told the media in 2008. Many cities fight against Wal-Mart, he said, but Livingston doesn't have many retail stores, so Wal-Mart would address a need.
Things were looking pretty upbeat for the project -- until the final week of June, 2010. According to the Merced County Examiner, Wal-Mart suddenly pulled their Blueberry Crossing project out of the oven. The Examiner noted that the withdrawal came just a few days after Wal-Mart told Mayor Daniel Varela that the project was moving ahead.
The newspaper printed excerpts from a letter written to the Mayor by one of Wal-Mart's PR operatives. "Thank for you interest in visiting with me to discuss the proposed Livingston Wal-Mart project," the Wal-Mart spokesman wrote to the Mayor on June 14th. "I certainly benefited from your perspective on the project and how Wal-Mart can best serve your community. In addition to the project's design and features, I am confident that the project will provide Wal-Mart customers the convenience of a full grocery department and even greater selection. In addition to increasing customer satisfaction, the project will provide your community the added benefit of new jobs, more tax revenue, and a reliable source of funding for local civic organizations and charities that are so important to your community's way of life. I am confident that working together we can develop a project that benefits your community for years to come. Thank you again for visiting with me. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me."
That letter hardly sounds like a kiss-off, but several days later, Wal-Mart was gone. The city was notified of the abrupt change in an email. "We regret to inform you that Wal-Mart has decided to not move forward with this project," the retailers' attorney wrote. "Please stop all work on the project as of today... . Thank you so much for your support and effort on this project. We have enjoyed working with you."
This week, six months later, the abandoned Wal-Mart site was back in the news. City officials are now trying to have their Blueberry Crossing despite being double-crossed by Wal-Mart.
According to the Sacramento Bee, the City Council has approved a small contract with an engineering firm to continue work on an environmental report for the 33 acre parcel, which was left hanging when Wal-Mart slammed the door.
The city's community development director wants the Blueberry Crossing site to be ready for the next big box store that comes down the highway. The city says the plans are being kept large so that any business from a huge Wal-Mart or smaller can fit on the site.
"It's probably just a matter of time before someone else comes," a city officials told the Sacramento Bee. The location along the highway is consider a "prime spot for a large commercial project," according to the newspaper. The city's engineer told The Bee that losing Wal-Mart was a disappointment for many.
What you can do: "They completely surprised us with their announcement," City Manager Richard Warne told the Examiner. The newspaper then quoted Al Norman from a column on The Huffington Post in March of 2008. "According to a list released this week," Norman said, "Wal-Mart Stores has abandoned a record-shattering 45 proposed projects over the past 10 months -- often leaving local officials dejected and confused. These store withdrawals usually come with little advance notice, and even less explanation."
Readers are urged to email Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message: "Dear Mayor Espinoza, The departure of Wal-Mart from the Blueberry Crossing project last June gives the city a chance to re-vision what it is doing with this large tract of land. There has been talk of a hotel, or a convention center -- but now that the shadow of big box sprawl has been removed from this site, the city should consider other development models, including mixed use with some small retail and residential units -- something more in keeping with the character and scale of Livingston.
I know that city officials were excited to get the first Wal-Mart superstore in the area -- and maybe you were even hoping that your store would cause the Wal-Mart discount store 12 miles away in Turlock to close. The reality is that Wal-Mart wants to convert all the discount stores in your area into superstores, or else shut them down.
I'm sure your local grocery stores were pleased not to lose all that market share, and your residents who are addicted to cheap Chinese merchandise still have easy access to Wal-Mart.
So finish your environmental report, but then ask city planners to change the nature of this proposed development to add more of a blueberry feel, with less concrete and asphalt."