Wal-Mart wants to break into The Middle Kingdom — and many Hobbits want no part of it. Citizens in Atascadero, California are gearing up to ward off a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter — but a developer is pleading with local residents to ‘give Wal-Mart a chance.’ Residents filed the following report with Sprawl-Busters: “Wal-Mart has purchased 26 acres for a superstore, as part of The Rottman Group’s planned project at El CaminoReal and Del Rio Road, Atascadero. This proposed store would be the first Wal-Mart superstore on California’s Central Coast — a beautiful rural area often called the Middle Kingdom. Groups such as the Atascadero Homeowners Association and Oppose Wal-Mart are collecting statistics, and negative media reports, in preparation for a planned public relations campaign to stop the project.” What sparked the opposition was a press release from the Rottman Group, based in San Luis Obispo, dated July 5th, which said the developer had “concluded negotiations with Wal-Mart to partner in the development” of a project known as The Annex. Rottman said Wal-Mart has purchased 26 acres of land in the project area on the southeast parcel of The Annex. The Rottman Group called Wal-Mart “a strong anchor for the proposed project.” In a very defensive-sounding press release, The Rottman Group added, “We recognize that there are many issues surrounding the possible location of a Wal-Mart in Atascadero. We are not ignoring public comment, but are asking residents to give Wal-Mart a chance to introduce itself, correct misconceptions and make a case for why it will benefit Atascadero.” The Rottman Group said it was concerned about “the amount of misinformation that exists about Wal-Mart,” and added, “We believe that before the community makes a decision about Wal-Mart, residents should hear both sides of the story. Stories like what Wal-Mart has meant to youth sports in Arroyo Grande and how Wal-Mart paid the medical bills for a North County resident and Wal-Mart employee stricken with cancer.” As of today Wal-Mart has not filed any paperwork with the city. Rottman claims that The Annex will bring in $1.5 to $2 million in sales taxes, plus $600,000 to $750,000 in new property taxes each year to the city. Such figures are not offset by any sales losses that will occur elsewhere in Atascadero, and the existing property taxes at this site. The Rottman Group claims that The Annex will “bring people to Atascadero — including its downtown.” “We see our proposal as a win-win situation for Atascadero,” the developer said, ” providing shopping choices and significant new retail sales tax to help the city.” The developer also claimed that Wal-Mart would bring 300 to 500 jobs averaging $10.50 an hour to Atascadero, and save food shoppers on average between 17 and 20 percent over a traditional grocery store. These are all figures given to the developer by Wal-Mart. The head of Atascadero Main Street Association, has come out in favor of Wal-Mart. According to the Tribune News, Steve Martin helped broker a deal with Wal-Mart when he was a city councilman in nearby Paso Robles. Thirteen years ago, Martin negotiated an “owner participation agreement” with Wal-Mart, which required the giant retailer to donate several thousand dollars a year to preserving the downtown. Martin said the agreement has meant more than $100,000 to the historic core. Wal-Mart’s payments, which amount to petty cash for the retailer, went to support the Main Street Association in Paso Robles, so Martin’s similar group in Atascadero hopes to be first in line to get their little “donation” when Wal-Mart comes in. Martin clearly has a financial conflict of interest, one his small business members might not appreciate.
There is already a Wal-Mart roughly 9 miles away in Paso Robles. If a supercenter is built in Atascadero, it’s likely the Paso Robles discount store will be closed — unless Wal-Mart can expand it into a supercenter. California already has six dead Wal-Mart stores, comprising nearly 600,000 s.f.. of empty stores. Atascadero’s sales tax gain will largely come from inside Atascadero and from surrounding towns. Existing grocery stores will see sales drop, so the net tax change to Atascadero will be very different from the gross figures quoted by The Rottman Group, which stands to make millions off the deal. When Wal-Mart opens, other local businesses will close, causing a drop in sales tax, even a net negative bottom line. This Wal-Mart project will also require an amendment to the city’s General Plan, and a state environmental quality review act process (CEQRA). So nothing is going to happen fast in Atascadero. Already the developer is on the defensive, and with good reason. Opposition to Wal-Mart has spread across California like a brush fire, jumping from community to community. Sprawl-Busters who want to tell The Rottman Group what they think of their Wal-Mart propaganda, can call the developer at 805-544-9444. Or fax them a drawing of The Middle Kingdom with no Wal-Mart, at: 805-544-9433. The developer’s mention of Wal-Mart’s help to a specific cancer victim has got to be an all-time low in crass marketing. Sprawl-Busters has examples of Wal-Mart families who have been ignored by their employer when they were in need of critical health care services.