Activists in Ventura, California say the foot-dragging has gone on long enough. On July 31, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had signed a lease on an existing K-Mart location in Ventura. Wal-Mart began talking with city planners two years ago about demolishing the Kmart store on Victoria Avenue and replacing it a 150,000 s.f. superstore with grass and a fountain in front, and with an underground parking lot. Wal-Mart has signed a lease on the Kmart store, but has not submitted a formal application. In March, 2007, the City Council in Ventura adopted a 20-year “smart growth” plan for a seven-block area along Victoria Avenue that calls for more offices and pedestrian-friendly development. The council passed an “urgency” ordinance on Victoria Avenue that requires a building greater than 50,000 s.f. to undergo a special review and a use permit. City planners said that Wal-Mart appeared to be willing to meet the city’s new development guidelines, which would force the retailer to reduce the size of its store to a 60,000 s.f. maximum, and build it on two stories. But citizens have been pressing the city to pass an ordinance controlling big-box development. With all that body language by city officials, one would think that Wal-Mart would get the message and come back in with a much smaller project — or leave. But Wal-Mart doesn’t read body language. This week, the Ventura County Star reports that Wal-Mart opponents have unveiled an effort to go directly to voters to stop the superstore project. The “Stop Ventura Wal-Mart Coalition Action Team,” says that city officials have ignored their calls for a local ordinance to ban supercenters, so they are now planning to submit language for a ballot measure. The group has targeted the November 2008 ballot, and is prepared to gather 6,000 valid signatures, which is 10% of Ventura’s 60,000 registered voters, to get on the ballot. “We have not received the cooperation of our elected leaders, so we have decided to take the campaign to stop Wal-Mart directly to the voters,” said coalition leader Jim Alger of the Ventura County Working People’s Alliance, an organization affiliated with the Tri-County Labor Federation. “This will be a massive undertaking … by concerned citizens who believe that we have a say in what does and doesn’t get built in our own community.” The coalition has prepared a slide show of Wal-Mart’s economic impact on communities, including images of Chinese workers in sweatshops. “Wal-Mart wants to take the good-paying jobs in your grocery stores,” said a union representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1036. The coalition is asking volunteers to gather signatures, put up lawnsigns, and continue to lobby the Ventura City Council to introduce an anti-big-box ordinance.
Opponents say a superstore will generate increased traffic, an influx of low-paying jobs, provide no affordable housing for the workers, and have a negative impact on independent business owners in town. Current rules allow for a six-story building at the Kmart site. Several members of the Ventura City Council, including Mayor Carl Morehouse, who are up for election on November 6th, have tried to avoid antagonizing either side of this issue, and favor limiting big box growth through new development guidelines along the Victoria Avenue corridor where Wal-Mart wants to locate. The city has been making little progress on such development guidelines over the past year, and the proposed rules are not due to be reviewed by the City Council until January. Officials say the new rules will be in place by the time Wal-Mart plans are considered. For now, the city does require a special conditional use permit for all new retail buildings in excess of 50,000 square feet on Victoria Avenue. In response to the city’s actions, Wal-Mart has charged that “special interests” are trying to stop them. This is the retailer’s stock response. Anyone who opposes them is part of some special interest group. “It’s very clear these are special interests trying to stop our ability to serve our customers,” the Wal-Mart spokesman told the County Star. “This is not a big-box issue, because there is already one there in the Kmart.” Citizens say they have not yet finalized the exact language of the ballot initiative. They could imitate the ordinance already passed in Santa Maria, California law, or they could add language requiring retailers to pay living wages and possibly provide housing, organizers said. Such additions would likely stimulate a Wal-Mart challenge in court. To help the work of the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition, contact CAUSE, 2021 Sperry #18, Ventura 93003, (805) 658-0810. Readers are urged to contact Ventura Mayor Carl Morehouse and the city council at (805) 654-7827, or email them at [email protected] Tell them: “The Victoria corridor is not for big box stores. Wal-Mart’s proposed project is not compatible with your 20 year plan. Support Ventura neighborhoods, not big box chains. Support the call for a ballot initiative, and let the voters decide the future of Ventura, not Wal-Mart.”