Over the years, Wal-Mart has learned to mimic citizen’s groups when approaching city hall for a building permit. They hire PR firms to organize “customers” through direct mail, telemarketing, in-store, petitions, dinner events before hearings — whatever it takes to turn out shoppers. But when Wal-Mart plans for a huge superstore were being considered in Concord, California this week, the retailer was pinning its hopes on residents, who presented a petition with 3,100-signature in support of their supercenter. But it didn’t turn the tide. Concord Councilwoman Helen Allen said at the hearing: “I don’t want to slam Wal-Mart, but we’ve worked very hard to improve the image of the city. I don’t want people to think ‘Wal-Mart’ when they think of Concord,” she said. Allen said she would invite the proposal to come forward again — but this time minus the Wal-Mart. Three council members voted against the proposed Jones Ranch project, which also would have included a Lowe’s home improvement store and a fast food restaurant. Two councilors voted for the project. Opponents said a 24-hour Wal-Mart would harm locally owned businesses. The 3-2 vote declared the project’s environmental study was inadequate. Mayor Mark Peterson and Vice Mayor Bill Shinn voted in favor of the plan. “Does Wal-Mart do things we don’t like?” the Mayor asked, referring to the company’s anti-union stance and employee benefit record. “Yeah, sure, but so do stockbrokers. So do a lot of companies, but I’m not supposed to be making the decision here tonight on a social basis. This is a land-use decision.” But another councilor said zoning issues were her major concerns. “The traffic impact is incredible,” she said. One resident in favor of Wal-Mart was quoted by the Contra Costa Times as saying, “The bottom line is one group of people is telling another where to spend their money. That’s what it’s coming down to.” The police chief in Concord said his staff was ready to handle a surge in crime caused by the all-night Wal-Mart operations. “If we demand (added security),” he stated, “Wal-Mart has said they’ll provide it. We need to be reasonable, though. If we have security driving around the parking lot in the middle of the night with no calls for service, that doesn’t make sense.” A citizens group called “No More on 4” presented crime statistics at Wal-Mart stores in Pittsburg, Martinez and Antioch.
This project in Concord has suffered a serious setback. But Wal-Mart is likely to return to try again. The argument that Wal-Mart opponents are “telling people where to spend their money” is an absurdity that often supporters of big box stores drag out. People addicted to cheap Chinese products have many Wal-Mart to choose from. The Concord issue is a zoning and public safety issue, not a convenience of shopping issue. Superstores are very large regional marketplaces, not neighborhood stores. They need at least 50,000 residents to survive. Just because these huge stores are not located every five miles, does not mean that anyone has lost their “freedom to shop,” even if there were such a freedom. Americans can shop at any store they want — but not anywhere they want. Zoning is a dirty six letter word that stands in the way. Most homeowners appreciate the fact that were it not for zoning, they might have an all-night Wal-Mart next door to their home. The health, safety and welfare of local residents is more important than the gross sales figure on Wal-Mart’s spreadsheet.