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2001-09-11
Reedley, CA. Wal-Mart Divides City.

Sprawl-Busters in Reedley, California report that the city is deeply split over a planned Wal-Mart store. Wal-Mart is part of a 68-acre commercial and residential development in Reedley, where one-third of the planning commissioners and three of five City Council members have potential conflicts of interest, including property owned near the proposed site. Mayor Joe Rhodes is one of the Council members who owns real estate near the site. Wal-Mart told the Fresno Bee that even with all these conflicts, and even if citizens try to place the project on a voter referendum, that the company will win. "With rare exception, we usually prevail -- predominantly because the customers like our stores," Wal-Mart's director of state and local government relations told the Bee. But a group called Citizens for Preserving Reedley (CPR) is willing to try and breath some life into the effort to keep Wal-Mart out, and not have to resuscitate the city. Reedley is a city of only 21,000, with a downtown district that still serves as the prime local marketplace, They had a Kmart, but it shut down in the mid-1990s. A couple of years ago, Wal-Mart filed plans for a 103,000-square-foot store with a knock away wall that could expand into a supercenter, although Wal-Mart has apparently denied that it plans to add a grocery store. However, a Wal-Mart supercenter is 40% grocery store, so an expanded site would by definition include groceries. A hotel is also planned for the site, but the big box store has generated most of the heat. The site has a significant border of upscale residential homes, and residents say have a megastore as a neigbhor was never contemplated by homeowners. To appease angry neighbors, Wal-Mart offered largely cosmetic changes, such as the color of the building (brown, not blue/grey) , and adding some articulation to the building to disguise its box appearanacae. The company also is backing off (for now) the issue of 24 hour operation, trying to reduce traffic to through the neighborhood streets, and creating more buffers between the store and existing homes. The City thinks these minor changes give Reedley "a unique building that was not a duplicate of another building in some other town," said one cityofficial. You can put a tuxedo on Frankenstein, but he's still a monster. The City's Planning commission holds a hearing on September 26th, and the City Council may get the project by November. The Planning director told the Bee that "It appears the project as a whole can have a net benefit to the community." But it does not appear that the city has any independent economic impact study to back up that statement, only figures from a Wal-Mart press release. Wal-Mart has claimed that it will bring more than $200,000 annually in sales tax to Reedley -- but this is a gross sales number that does not subtract the cost of providing municipal services to the site, including water, sewer, police, fire, road maintenance, etc. Studies across the country suggest that big box stores do not pay for themselves, but can actually cost communities money. The same with job claims. Wal-Mart says it will create 300 jobs -- but many of these jobs are part time, and all pay prevailing wages. They are also likely to be offset by other jobs lost at area retailers. As is customary, Wal-Mart has produced its own "poll" of what people in Reedely want, and (surprise) they strongly back a new store. The company also repeats in Reedley its mantra: "Our customers are very frustrated by what they feel is a vocal minority trying to stop this project." Every Wal-Mart opposition group is called a "vocal minority", even, as in Eureka, CA, when voters turned away a Wal-Mart by a 62% majority. Wal-Mart opponents have submitted petitions with roughly 700 signatures against the project. They cite traffic through the neighborhoods as a major issue. An environmental report lists increased traffic and the loss of prime farmland as project fallout that cannot be avoided. Storm water runoff into the local river is also a concern. Critics also note that this superstore would be located right at the gateway to the city. The head of the Reedley Chamber of Commerce says the city needs a Wal-Mart so local residents have somewhere to buy underwear. "If you tried to buy underwear in Reedley, it's really tough. There's a couple of places that sell it, but you really have to go out of town." No one suggests that if people want underwear, they might not need a supercenter to satisfy that need, and that quality of life in Reedley might be worth more than a cheap pair of underwear. Meanwhile, the issue is deeply dividing the city, and the Mayor told the Fresno Bee; "I hate to see the community divided." Maybe that should tell the Mayor something about what Wal-Mart means to many people in his town -- not just a vocal minority. Cheap underwear, indeed!

What you can do: Since when did shopping beocme a higher social function than maintaining the quality of life and appearance of a community? Since when did it become more important to satisfy the format/ revenue needs of a large corporation by sacrificing the investment of dozens of local homeowners and taxpayers? Since when can people only get underwear at a store more than twice the size of a football field? And where did the other stores that sold underwear go? Is the concept of "appropriate scale" dead in Reedley? If a community wants to reduce its downtown to t shirt shops and antiques boutiques, then Wal-Mart fits the bill. But if you want a working downtown, including one that sells men's clothing, then you don't build superstores on the edge of town. The Reedley battle is classic. What Wal-Mart calls the "right to shop" has taken over the more orderly needs of planning for growth in a community. Wal-Mart is leaving a growing number of empty stores behind in California. Today's discount store becomes tomorrow's empty box. Local officials read off tax figures directly from Wal-Mart press releases, with no analysis or study done. And for this, the value of neigbhbor's homes is impacted forever. Yes, there is a major conflict of interest in Reedley, but its not just the Mayor's little piece of real estate. It's over the future of what kind of community Reedley wants to be, and how important shopping is as a community value. For more info on CPR, contact info@sprawl-busters.com










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

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