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2011-05-19
Visalia, CA. Wal-Mart Brings Soda and Fans To Expansion Hearing

In case the city council in Visalia, California was unsure about granting Wal-Mart a permit to expand one of its discount stores, the giant retailer sent some of its employees to the hearing, passing out Wal-Mart fans and soft drinks like they were at a baseball game. But the room was also packed with opponents who want the city council to strike Wal-Mart out.

On March 12, 2011, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was trying to move into a 123,000 s.f. abandoned Costco building. Wal-Mart showed interest in the property, which has been empty since 2007. But the Arkansas retailer is also pushing to expand an existing discount store in the city just minutes away.

These big box stores have been playing a game of musical chairs in Visalia. Costco moved out of its 'old' store and opened a 160,000 s.f. store on Packwood Creek in Visalia, leaving the South Mooney Mall with gaping holes. That mall has had vacancy problems for the past decade. A HomeBase store and a Circuit City both went out of business, leaving the Mooney mall struggling to survive. The departure of Costco left the mall in rough shape. "We in the city really want to fill up all those empty spaces," one city official said earlier this year. Birds have come to roost in the empty buildings that symbolize the unstable retail marketplace.

The larger mall around the abandoned Costco building is owned by a partnership that includes Save Mart, a grocery chain that competes with Wal-Mart superstores. For that reason it is not surprising that Wal-Mart will not be opening up a superstore at the Mooney site, just a discount store without a full-line grocery.

The saturation of grocery stores has been a hot topic in Visalia for more than a year now. A coalition of six local grocery stores tried to get the city council to pass a moratorium on new grocery stores, to try to stop the addition of a proposed 300,000 s.f. addition to the existing 600,000 s.f. of grocery leased space. The Visalia city council rejected the moratorium idea in April of 2010, but litigation is still pending on the issue.

There are rumors that the Mooney mall has other suitors, including the Burlington Coat Factory and Dick's Sporting Goods. But Wal-Mart is the first retailer to express firm interest in the empty space left by the chain store exodus.

This week Wal-Mart's existing store on Noble Avenue in east Visalia, which was built in 1992, was in the spotlight. According to The Valley Voice newspaper, the city council faced a standing room only crowd of over 100 people -- all over Wal-Mart's plan to add 60,000 s.f. to its current store. That would amount to a 46% increase in the 130,000 s.f. store's capacity.

The proposal has already been approved by Visalia's Planning Commission at the end of April, but opponents used their appeal rights to take the case to the city council. Wal-Mart employees and management testified in favor of the plan at the council's hearing this week. A group called the Smart Growth Coalition brought the appeal, and was represented by a land use attorney.

The Valley Voice said the opponents are "said to be backed" by the Savemart grocery chain. The group charges that the Planning Commission failed to study the adverse economic impacts this project will have on the city, and related environmental impacts.

Jim Watt, a former vice president with Savemart, testified at the hearing, warning that an expanded store would mean more traffic, noise, light pollution, and air quality issues -- buzz words for the "urban decay" issue which has been raised in many of the battles in California, because of legal requirements raised in the state's Environmental Quality Act. Urban decay leads to economic blight , and can be used as a reason for denying a project. Opponents said the store expansion would harm nearby residential property values.

What you can do: Wal-Mart told local officials that expanded its store would add 85 'new local jobs,' but they failed to describe how many existing jobs in the grocery field would be lost.

The city council is apparently assuming that if they approve the expansion, they will be sued by their own citizens, and if they disapprove it, Wal-Mart would appeal. "It's just part of doing business for the city these days," said one city official told the Valley Voice.

Readers are urged to email Visalia Mayor Bob Link at: BLink@ci.visalia.ca.us with the following message:

"Dear Mayor Link,

As the owner of a local clothing store, you understand the impact that big box stores like Wal-Mart have had on small merchants in your community and across the country. Your city is already awash in big box stores, and you have seen some of them come and go. Wal-Mart wants to move into the 'old' Costco building, and now they want to expand their store on Noble Avenue.

They tell you this expansion will create 85 jobs, but that's voodoo economics. If they were looking at the whole equation, they would give you a net job figure -- subtracting out the jobs that will be lost at other local grocers.

The fact is, new sales at Wal-Mart come largely from existing cash registers elsewhere in town, including the existing Wal-Mart. You like to brag about Visalia's "picturesque communities and stunning landscapes against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains." But if you keep adding big boxes, the only 'stunning landscape" in your city will be the blank box walls that overwhelm your built landscape.

It's time to think outside of the box and develop projects that don't simply destroy local jobs and businesses. A cap on the size of retail buildings would be a good place to start."










 
 
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