You might call this story ‘The Bench Vs. Bentonville.’ A Kern County Superior Court Judge in Bakersfield, California has stunned Wal-Mart and city officials by ruling last Friday that two Wal-Mart Supercenters in Bakersfield must go on hold until the city studies the economic impact these giant stores will bring to the city. Judge Kenneth Twisselman allowed other stores in the malls to proceed (a Kohl’s and a Lowe’s) but he put a clamp on the Wal-Marts. According to the Bakersfield Californian newspaper, the Judge ruled that the City Council failed to study the urban decay that could be caused by the Wal-Mart superstores. A local anti Wal-Mart group, the Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control, attempted to keep the judge from allowing any of the stores to go forward. Because of the court’s ruling, Bakersfield will have to take the next six months to prepare a study of the economic impact of Wal-Marts before the two stores can have a hearing before the Bakersfield City Council, and resume construction on their building.
Traditionally, when a developer is asked to do an economic impact study, they come in with a plan that makes every project looks like it was built in Lake Wobegon, where all the site plans are good looking, and all the economic impacts are above average. Every city and town zoning code should require that an independent economic impact study be conducted, underwritten by the developer, but hired by the community. Even so, most consultants are afraid to irritate the funding source, and the charade of economic benefit goes on. I visited this city in 1995 to help some neighbors push a Wal-Mart out of their neigborhood. We were successful, but the Wal-Mart stores just kept right on coming. City officials seemed to have no idea what impact this saturation was having on their existing businesses and neighborhoods. Thanks to Stacy Mitchell of New Rules for drawing our attention to this new case out of Bakersfield.