Since 1990, the population of the city of Chico, California has almost doubled. In 2006, the city had more than 73,000 residents. There is already one Wal-Mart Discount store on Forest Avenue, but the retailer has big plans to put up another 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 the 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. According to the Chico Enterprise-Record, the would-have-been supercenter was a whopping 242,000 s.f. store. Wal-Mart told local officials that the decision to unplug the Chico proposal was made by an internal committee at Wal-Mart. “Under the new guidelines for our Wal-Mart Supercenter strategy, this project did not meet those guidelines,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said in 2008. “We are certainly disappointed, especially after the four years we have been working on the project,” he said. When Wal-Mart’s committee looked at the north Chico store, they found it did not meet their guidelines. Yet Wal-Mart claims there was strong demand for the store in Chico. They received more than 10,000 cards of support for a Chico supercenter. (Such cards were placed in the Forest Avenue Wal-Mart in Chico and shoppers could just fill them out and drop them in a box.) “We recognize the demand and the desire to have the retail there; unfortunately, it just didn’t meet the guidelines,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said. As usual, Wal-Mart did not rule out trying to find another location in Chico. “I think we’re always exploring new opportunities to better serve our customers and we’ll continue to do so. For right now, our expansion is our focus,” the company told the Enterprise-Record. This land was the home of the Sunset Hills Golf Course, which leased the land. The Butte County Planning Staff gave Wal-Mart’s project poor marks, noting that it would make it harder for other business to take root in that part of the city. Planners also took a dim view of placing a big box store close to agricultural land. Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a 5 or 6 foot high sound wall to mitigate impacts on a nearby mobile home park, also was frowned upon. County fire officials stated that more traffic could make fire services harder to deliver on time. The county’s planner simply concluded that the plan was out-of-scale for the area. Wal-Mart also drew the ire of local activists in Chico, who criticized a Wal-Mart “survey” of economic impacts that they said was highly misleading. The group Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (C.A.R.E.) said supercenters have been a major issue in Chico since 2004, when courts sided with residents demanding that Wal-Mart comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and conduct a full environmental impact study on a proposed Supercenter. Opposition grew when Wal-Mart announced plans for a second Supercenter just 7 miles away. Wal-Mart paid the Chico Economic Planning Corporation (CEPCO), a private organization with no experience in polling, to conduct a survey of California communities with Supercenters. The survey, first released to the Chico media in December 2006, claimed economic development leaders surveyed in communities with Wal-Marts believe their Supercenter has had a positive impact on the community and economy — a misleading claim according to C.A.R.E. In 2007, Wal-Mart began using the CEPCO survey in communities throughout California, calling it “a tool that benefits local planners and community leaders.” “Because this survey bears Chico’s name,” said C.A.R.E.’s founder Heather Schlaff, “we want to be sure other communities hear both sides of the argument and more importantly, have the facts that show why the CEPCO survey has no value — except as a tool for Wal-Mart.” C.A.R.E released a fact sheet outlining major concerns about the Wal-Mart CEPCO survey, including information from actual statistically-based academic studies. C.A.R.E.’S concerns include the fact that findings were based solely on interviews with 22 individuals, many of whom advocated for the Supercenters during the development process and whose job it is to support such projects. Community members, business owners and economic leaders in cities that have rejected Supercenter proposals were not surveyed. “The CEPCO survey is not a scientific survey. More accurately, it is a letter of reference from 22 individuals whose names are being kept confidential,” Schlaff said. This week, residents in Chico focused back on Wal-Mart’s plan to expand their existing discount store into a supercenter. On July 30th, 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.” The Planning Commission is expected to formally turn down the project when it convenes next on August 20th. Wal-Mart would then have the right to appeal to the City Council. Heather Schlaff from the CARE group said “I’m very happy tonight, but it’s just step one in a 2-step process. So we’re pleased tonight, but we’ll wait and see what happens at the city council.” Some local observers predict that the City Council will look more favorably on the Wal-Mart expansion. In fact, one City Council member has inappropriately tipped his hand before the matter even reaches the Council. Member Larry Wahl to KHSL TV that its in the City Council’s hands to overturn the Planning Council decision, which he characterized as “misguided, misdirected and out to lunch.” So much for a fair and balanced tribunal.
Under the first Wal-Mart superstore plan, the city was planning to annex a total of 148 acres into Chico. When Wal-Mart dropped the ball, the city had to pick up the cost of finishing the Environmental Impact Report. One city official suggested that the city wouldn’t invest the money to certify the EIR. “I’m fairly certain that means that entire thing is done, at least for now,” a city official said last year. Wal-Mart wasted 4 years trying to make sense of this senseless location. Now they have stirred up angry residents again by expanded a store that they could simply convert into a superstore without adding a single square foot. It’s called doing an “in-box conversion,” and would have saved Wal-Mart the time and money of fighting area residents. The City Council should not overturn the vote of its Planning Commission. Readers are urged to email Councilor Larry Wahl and Mayor Ann Schwab at [email protected] and [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Schwab and Council Wahl, I was appalled to read that Councilor Wahl has told the media that the Planning Commission rejection of Wal-Mart’s expansion on Forest Avenue was ‘out to lunch.’ The many residents of Chico who oppose this needless expansion are no doubt hoping that Councilor Wahl will be ‘out to lunch’ when this proposal comes to the City Council for a vote. The Council should be keeping its powder dry until all the facts and arguments have been laid out. It is totally inappropriate for a Councilor to show a predisposing bias with comments like those of Mr. Wahl. I would urge Councilor Wahl to recuse himself from the hearing, because he has already prejudiced himself in the media, and given Wal-Mart a clear signal that his vote is already cast before the details even come before the Council. Councilor Wahl has compromised himself legally, and should step down from the hearing. This project is not about jobs or tax revenues for Chico. It’s about market share for Wal-Mart. As the 2003 study by Ohio-based Retail Forward concluded: for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two area grocery stores will close. Tell that to your constituents before you cast your vote.”