Not impressed. That’s how the Chico Enterprise-Record described the reaction of City Councilors to Wal-Mart’s plan to expand its current store in Chico, California into a supercenter. On November 16th, Sprawl-Busters reported that city councilors in Chico were looking for concessions to wring out of Wal-Mart before they let the retailer expand its discount store. One city councilor came up with the unusual idea of getting Wal-Mart to replace all the old woodstoves in the city. On August 1, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Planning Commission in Chico, California had rejected a proposed expansion of an existing 126,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store into a supercenter. The expansion would add 82,500 s.f. to the existing building. In early September, 2009, Wal-Mart appealed the Planning Commission’s denial to the city council. On September 30, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council — as expected — had reversed the Planning Commission’s decision, and voted to support the expansion. But Wal-Mart’s elation soon turned to confusion. The City Council failed to give the retailer the ‘findings of fact’ it needed to move forward with the store — and one councilor even suggested that his vote could be changed to support Wal-Mart if the company came up with some goodies for the city’s low-income residents. The existing Wal-Mart discount store is on Forest Avenue, but the retailer had initially proposed to put up a new supercenter just over the city line to the north of Chico, on roughly 19 acres of land most recently used for a golf course. Wal-Mart began working on a new Chico supercenter in 2004. But on March 17, 2008, Wal-Mart announced that its Chico Supercenter plans had been scrubbed, and the company instead would focus on expanding its existing discount store. A group called Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (C.A.R.E.) came out against the expansion plan. On July 30, 2009, the Chico Planning Commission took up the Forest Avenue expansion plan — but the evening did not go well for Wal-Mart. One Commission member was quoted by KHSL TV as saying, “I don’t think this project supports our economy. I think it may actually damage it considerably, and there’s actually no clear evidence that is would result in very many local jobs.” At a subsequent meeting on August 20th, the Planning Commission turned down the superstore plan on a 5-2 vote. Wal-Mart had the right to appeal to the City Council. Some local observers predicted that the City Council would look more favorably on the Wal-Mart expansion. In fact, one City Council member inappropriately tipped his hand before the matter even reached the Council. Member Larry Wahl told the TV station that it was in the City Council’s hands to overturn the Planning Council decision, which he characterized as “misguided, misdirected and out to lunch.” Wal-Mart filed its appeal to the City Council on August 31st, 11 days after the Planning Commission vote. The Wal-Mart appeal stated, “We feel that the Planning Commission’s decision was in error and continue to support city staff’s recommendation for approval.” The appeal was filed by PacLand, a Washington state developer. PacLand said the superstore was consistent with the city land use policy, and that measures had already been put into place to mitigate any adverse impacts on air quality. Wal-Mart claimed that the analysis of blight caused by the store was “not based on substantial evidence and, in any event, resulted in a ‘battle of the experts.'” At the end of September, the Chico City Council voted 5-2 to overturn the Planning Commission’s rejection of Wal-Mart’s expansion plan. But then the council refused to vote for a number of ‘findings’ the retailer needed to proceed. The Council voted 5-2 not to find that the project’s benefits outweighed its environmental impacts. However, the Council made it clear that it was not shutting the door completely on a larger Wal-Mart. They voted 7-0 to ask city staff to work with Wal-Mart on their environmental concerns, and to come back with the plan later this fall. Councilor Scot Gruendl asked Wal-Mart to contribute $1 million “to help low-income people buy less-polluting wood stoves to replace older appliances” — a sort of cash for clinkers program. Gruendl reasoned that Wal-Mart should offer ‘incentives’ to offset the harmful impact that increased traffic caused by their store would have on the city’s air quality. Wal-Mart decided to come up with its own laundry list of ‘benefits’ for the city. Wal-Mart did not warm up to Councilor Gruendl’s suggestion that Wal-Mart provide $1 million to help Chico residents buy new woodstoves for their homes. Mayor Ann Schwab said she wanted to see solar panels at the store. But Wal-Mart said it would purchase additional air pollution credits from the Butte County Air Quality Management District. The company also promised it would set up a ride-share program for its workers, to encourage workers to share rides to the store, or to ride bikes, or walk. Wal-Mart agreed to hire a ride-share coordinator and post ride share info on an employee bulletin board at the store. The world’s largest retailer also agreed to donate one bicycle every year to “Bike Chico Week.” Wal-Mart also agreed to hire subcontractors doing business within 100 miles of Chico — but not for the general contractors. Wal-Mart also said it would conduct a workshop for local businesses who might have products they want to sell at Wal-Mart. It’s not exactly how the island of Manhattan was sold for a handful of beads, but its pretty close. But on November 17th, Wal-Mart’s presentation to the City Council was — to use the Mayor’s term — “very underwhelming.” Wal-Mart rejected the wood stove purchase idea, rejected the Mayor’s idea for solar panels on the store, and offered only its ride share and “bike-a-year” offer. All of this did not add up to much in the Council’s eyes. “I think if we put this on a scale of one to 10, the response from Wal-Mart is very underwhelming and perhaps a two,” Mayor Schwab said. “I don’t think that they took our proposal seriously.” “Wal-Mart’s response to the Chico City Council proposal is a bad deal as well,” one opponent said. “Their pitiful offer falls woefully short of what was asked.” The Council voted 4-3 to reject the concept that the store’s benefits outweighed its costs. The Council then voted 4-3 to deny Wal-Mart’s appeal of the Plannning Board decision.
After the vote, a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Enterprise-Record that the retailer had ‘far exceeded’ all the city’s requirements for the project. The company can resubmit its plan in a year, or possibly pursue litigation against the city. At the conclusion of the meeting, all Wal-Mart had left with was a bike to ride back to its headquarters in Arkansas. Wal-Mart wasted 5 years trying to find some place to land in Chico. When they gave up the free-standing superstore, and sought an expansion of an existing store, the city never really took to the plan, and the Planning Board vote reflected the lack of enthusiasm for the project. Readers are urged to email Councilor Scott Gruendl at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Councilor Gruendl, Thank you for voting to reject Wal-Mart’s expansion plan on Forest Avenue. Wal-Mart rejected your proposal, and came up with some cheap giveaways of its own. Their ‘donate one bike a year’ was a joke. The many residents of Chico who oppose this needless expansion are pleased that the City Council recognized the harmful impacts of this project on the city’s environment. This project was never about jobs or tax revenues for Chico. It was about market share for Wal-Mart. Your vote made it clear that Chico is not for sale. Wal-Mart already has a presence in Chico, and they have wasted five years of time asking the City Council for projects they don’t need, and plans the city doesn’t need either.”