After five years of expensive delays and setbacks, Wal-Mart is still working on its superstore plans in Willows, California — but they had to first give up the idea of a new, free-standing building, and make a major cut in the scale of the proposal. Even with all those changes, the expanded store may not open until Christmas of 2011 — six years after it was introduced.
On December 12, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was trying to build a new superstore in the small community of Willows, which has a population of less than 6,300 people. Willows doesn’t really need a superstore for that population base, but Wal-Mart thinks this tiny community needs a larger store.
In March of 2006, the retailer proposed demolishing its existing discount store on Airport Avenue, which was ‘only’ 84,000 s.f., and replacing it with a supercenter. City officials enthusiastically supported the larger store, and approved it, in what one newspaper called a “flurry of support.”
That was more than four and a half years ago. As 2008 came to a close, Wal-Mart told the media that plans for a new store had been abandoned. According to the Enterprise-Record newspaper, Wal-Mart decided not to tear down its ‘old’ building — but to expand its existing store by adding another 54,404 s.f. to the structure. Original plans for a new supercenter were first unveiled in 2005, but Wal-Mart said a free-standing superstore would not happen because of the nation’s “poor economic climate.” The land needed to fit this store was dropped from 21 acres to 12.
The project, which originally called for a 193,459 s.f. supercenter, was scaled back to just over 140,857 s.f. to allow for better truck access to the back of the building and customer access to the tire and lube center. Wal-Mart presented this expansion-in-place plan to the Willows Planning Commission, which approved the user permit and design plan in March of 2007. The new supercenter won’t have a tire and lube shop — but otherwise the expanded store is not different from the original stand alone superstore, including a major grocery component. The building also includes two separate parcels or “pad sites” — one for a fast food restaurant with drive-up window, and second pad site for a 12-pump gas station.
In 2008, three year after Wal-Mart first announced its expansion plans, it appeared that the retailer was in no great hurry to build this expansion. The company said that it still had to submit further plans to the city, and that once it gets its building permit, actual construction might not begin for another year and a half.
“We do see a light at the end of the tunnel,” a Wal-Mart engineer, told the city council in February of 2008 — while asking for a one-year extension on the store’s conditional use permit. Wal-Mart stood to lose the right to develop the land if it did not ask for an extension. Wal-Mart claimed that it was waiting for permits from California Department of Transportation and California Water Service. The Tri-County Newspapers reported that the traffic improvement project to accommodate the bigger store was is enormous, and involved the realignment of County Road G to Airport Road.
By December of 2009, the Tri-County Newspapers were reporting that the Wal-Mart expansion was stuck in “an arduous and protracted design review process.” In August of 2010, the Glenn County Supervisors approved a realignment of Airport Road, subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. County Road G is not owned by the city, so the county needed an agreement from the city to maintain this road once the Wal-Mart opened. The California Department of Transportation was also involved with the project, since a state right of way is needed along Route 162. The FAA has authority to approve or disapprove of the roadway changes depending on their impact on the Willows airport. One solution involved moving the runway and adding 1,000 feet of length to the landing area. But this would require the destruction of 15 acres of farmland and federal grants for the runway work.
This week, the Willows Wal-Mart was back in the news, with the announcement that the FAA had approved plans near the airport. “This essentially clears the way… to award the construction contract,” the Willows City Manager Steve Holsinger said. A new road will be built that will impact a strip of airport land. The Willows Journal reports that construction on the new store could begin around Thanksgiving, and will take as much as one year to complete.
Willows, California may have a larger Wal-Mart by Christmas of 2011, six years after the original plans were submitted. Now, a much reduced store is the final result. Portions of the existing store will be demolished and a portion of the parking lot will be removed and reconstructed. None of this delay and added expense would have been needed if Wal-Mart had simply converted its existing 1992 store into a superstore — something it has already done in other parts of the country. A city spokesman said Wal-Mart is now eager to finally get going. “They are anxious to move the project ahead.”
Wal-Mart’s change in plans from a free-standing supercenter to an expanded existing store had to do with the general economic climate in 2008.
Although Wal-Mart has been much more prosperous during the recession than most retailers, the company has announced with great fanfare that it is cutting back its production of new superstores from 280 a year to 140 in coming years.
The Willows decision to expand-in-place certainly makes more sense economically and environmentally than tearing down a building the size of one and a half football fields. There was also speculation that removing all that debris from the existing site may have been too expensive for Wal-Mart’s liking. But parts of the “old” store are being torn down anyway.
Whatever the reason, the expanded store is really not needed in the first place. A small community like Willows has no need for a huge supercenter. The addition of a grocery store to the Wal-Mart is only designed to change market share in the city. Most of the existing grocery stores in Willows, like Sav Mor and Sani Food are small-time operations. It is reasonable to conclude that when Wal-Mart adds a grocery component, one or two of these existing grocery stores will close.
Readers are urged to call the Mayor of Willows, Heather Baker, at 530-934-7041 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Baker, The expansion of the Wal-Mart on Airport Avenue will bring no added value to your local economy in Willows, and in fact may precipitate the closure of one or more existing grocery store.
The argument over jobs and taxes really is moot, because your small community doesn’t have the population to support all this added retail capacity.
You may want to add a local ordinance that requires any retail store that remains empty for more than 12 consecutive months to have a demolition bond, because you may need it when the Wal-Mart supercenter opensl, and other stores close.
Wal-Mart could have saved six years of time and a major investment by performing an ‘in-box conversion’ on their existing store, converting it into a superstore. Now, you will se no new net jobs or revenues from this project, because most of the sales at Wal-Mart will come from existing stores. Yes, around 9 acres were spared by scaling back the project — which was good — but there was no market need for this expansion in the first place.
Including a gas station as part of this project is another example of wasteful land use.”