Wal-Mart is not used to having independent consultants analyze its plans — but that’s the price the retailer is going to have to pay if it wants to get into Paradise. On December 9, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had its eyes on Paradise, California. The town of Paradise, California, which was incorporated in 1979, has the motto, “May you find Paradise to be all its name implies.” The town depicts itself as entering “an exciting and dynamic era as a small-sized city.” Struggling over its identity, Paradise says “we are predominately a bedroom community that values its small town heritage,” but, at the same time, “we recognize the necessity to strengthen and diversify our local business economy.” Paradise is locked into a battle over sales tax “leakage” into nearby Chico. In 2001, a retail developer, FHK, submitted initial plans to develop Paradise’s Gateway with a retail project. There were rumors that the shopping center would include a Wal-Mart Supercenter. In 2004, the citizen’s group Save Our Gateway became concerned with the site’s wastewater capacity and the safe and healthy disposal of sewage and runoff from the site. At that point, legal action was taken to stop the project until the issues were resolved. In January 2007, the State Court of Appeals found that the existing plans for the Skyway Plaza did not have adequate wastewater capacity for the proposed size and uses. The project was going to generate 28,000 gallons of wastewater, but could only dispose of 12,000 gallons. The project would need to be scaled back. In June 2007, FHK sold the land to Wal-Mart, and by November of 2007, new plans had been submitted to the town. There already is a Wal-Mart in Chico 10 miles away. Paradise has been working for years to redevelop its downtown. But the focus on downtown will change now that Wal-Mart has submitted its application for a store on the vacant property on the Skyway west of the town. Because this project does not fit in with the current town General Plan, Wal-Mart asked to amend the General Plan, and annex the land into Paradise. The Wal-Mart superstore at 190,000 s.f. is only one part of the project, which would total 316,000 s.f. — — larger than 6 football fields on 50 acres of land. It will have other retail space, a restaurant, office space, a hotel, and a gas station. About 29 acres will “remain as an agricultural and open space environment,” according to the Post, and include “a scenic overlook.” (If looking out on a huge Wal-Mart can be considered “scenic” in any sense of the word.) The Skyway Plaza concept was approved by the voters in 2004, and town officials say voters “supported it pretty convincingly.” Wal-Mart has told the town that development of the Plaza could take up to 15 years — but you can be sure the Wal-Mart supercenter will be in the first phase of the plan. If the rest never really happens, Wal-Mart can blame the “many unknown factors” that they have invoked already when giving a timetable for the build-out. Town officials acknowledge that there is a group of residents against the plan, called Save Our Gateway, but the town’s head of development said he “is unsure of their motive.” Wal-Mart says their plan will “create” 350 full and part-time jobs at the supercenter alone, and add sales tax revenue for the town. It will cut down on traffic trips of residents, the retailer says, and provide another 100 jobs through stores and restaurants. The Skyway Plaza has become a defining project for Paradise, that will change everything “that the name implies.” In February of 2009, the Paradise Post reported that the Skyway Crossroads land had been sold toWal-Mart by developer Katz Kirkpatrick Properties. Back in the fall of 2007, Wal-Mart had submitted an application to the city, but the city ruled that the application was not complete, and gave it back to Wal-Mart to make some required changes. At that point, the process went into limbo, and for the past 14 months, nothing has been heard from Wal-Mart. Yesterday, April 28, 2009, the Enterprise Record newspaper reported that Wal-Mart is ready to pay more than half a million for ‘independent’ studies on its Paradise plan. The retailer has agreed to come up with $530,000 to do an environmental impact study, traffic impact study, and other planning studies for the project on the southeast edge of town. Wal-Mart will pay for the studies, but the town has hired the consultants. The town manager told the media that construction of the store could be two years away — but this assumes it will be approved by the town council and not appealed by residents.
The town official who said he was “unsure” why local people in Paradise are against this plan, need only go to their website to read their purpose. “Since 2001, the Skyway Plaza project has divided our community between those who don’t want development at the Gateway and others who see it as a prime location for a large-scale retail development,” Save Our Gateway writes. “One option protects our Gateway vistas and small town feel while the other would generate tax revenue for our Town’s public services. In the past, both opponents and supporters of the Skyway Plaza Project have gotten so caught up in the “either-or” that we’ve forgotten to ask, ‘How we can have both?’ Today, Save Our Gateway is dedicated to engaging Paradise residents in meaningful dialog about what type of development our community wants and needs at our gateway. The Save Our Gateway committee was formed to fight what many saw as a disastrous plan for our foothill community.” The fact remains, the town of Paradise has had a stagnant population for the past 16 years. The population of Paradise in 2006 stood at 26,389 people, compared to 25, 408 in 1990. That means the town has grown an average of 5 new people every month for the past decade and a half. There is no demographic need for another huge retail store in Paradise — especially one which devotes nearly half of its floor space to groceries. This project could force the Wal-Mart discount store in Chino 10 miles away to close. Then Chino could build a superstore to pull leakage back from Paradise, and the “cash box” zoning battle goes back and forth. The town of Paradise today has roughly half the population base needed to support a supercenter, so it will have to rely on capturing sales from the regional market — but the regional market already has other Wal-Mart stores. This project will have to undergo the California Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQRA) process, but the town itself also requires that any proposed commercial or industrial development that would result in the establishment of a building area of 14,520 square feet or greater has to form a “Mello-Roos” district, because the town is concerned that large projects “would become a long-term drain on the Town’s limited financial resources. Furthermore, these types of projects will adversely affect the Town’s ability to meet existing infrastructure, infrastructure maintenance, and public safety needs. Finally, many projects of this type do not pay their fair share of the long-term impacts of the project, especially in terms of maintenance and impact on public services.” Wal-Mart will have to form a district that issue bonds to help pay for the town’s expanded infrastructure needs. Paradise also can require a “market absorption study,” which must include “an estimate of the… rate of absorption, and will be used as a basis for verification that sufficient revenues can be generated, and to determine if the financing of the improvements is appropriate given the projected level and pace of development.” The town has not had the population growth needed to absorb a massive amount of new retail, which means that to succeed, Wal-Mart will primarily have to “capture” sales from existing merchants, which means a loss of jobs and wages. A study released in 2007 by the University of California Labor Center at Berkeley suggests that a new Wal-Mart pulls down wages in the general trade area where it locates. To learn more about the opposition to this project, or to contribute money to support their effort, write to Save Our Gateway, PO Box 982, Paradise, CA 95967. Their website is http://saveourgateway.org/ or email the group at [email protected] Readers are also urged to email Paradise Mayor Frankie Rutledge and the Town Council by going to: http://www.townofparadise.com/contact.php and sending the Mayor this email message: “A Wal-Mart supercenter the size of 4 football fields makes no sense for a community that boasts of its ‘small town heritage.’ This project is incompatible with your General Plan, and will pull people away from your downtown, not enhance it. You don’t have the population growth to support a major infusion of new retail capacity. Instead, you will lose existing businesses and jobs, and lower wages at the same time. Getting Wal-Mart to spend more than half a million dollars on ‘independent’ environmental and traffic studies is a helpful step — but you also need to do an economic impact study — which will show you that this project is not a form of economic development at all, and that most of the jobs at Wal-Mart will be transferred from existing merchants.”