Wal-Mart probably assumed its plans to build a superstore in Ceres, California would go off without a hitch. After all, the giant retailer already had one store in Ceres, and the new superstore would be similar, just larger and loaded with groceries. But like most Wal-Mart projects, things have not gone according to plan.
In July of 2007 — 4 years ago — Wal-Mart unveiled a 208,000 s.f. superstore proposal from the south side of town near Highway 99. The new Wal-Mart project would also be located on Mitchell Road — less than two miles from the existing Wal-Mart, in an area the developer is calling “Mitchell Ranch Center.” The giant retailer suggested at first that it would renovate its existing store — but the ruse didn’t last long. The company later announced that its existing store would be shut down, leaving the city with a large store to fill.
This is what Wal-Mart did with “old” stores at Rancho Cordova and Sacramento, California. “Our existing Ceres store is at capacity,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the Modesto Bee in 2007. “This is a great opportunity to continue to serve our customers.”
The City of Ceres, California is located in the central San Joaquin Valley, 80 miles south of Sacramento and 95 miles east of San Francisco. Named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres describes itself as “a growing community with a heartfelt commitment to retaining its small neighborhood personality.” Lately residents are wondering if city government has abandoned that ‘personality,’ just as Wal-Mart plans to abandon its existing store.
This city of roughly 42,245 people already has 4 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles to choose from, including the 124,000 s.f. Wal-Mart store #1983 located on Mitchell Road in Ceres. Almost as soon as the store was announced, local residents began organizing to stop it. The following report from opponents was printed by Sprawl-Busters in a November 28, 2007 Newsflash article:
“The Wal-Mart Corporation wants to build a second store, a supercenter, in Ceres, California. The proposal is controversial for a number of reasons, and the two stores would be located about 2 miles apart, both on Mitchell Road. Wal-Mart is intent on developing a 26.4-acre plot of land containing 16-plus acres of prime farmland. Approximately 15 acres would allow for 1,281 cars on a single-level parking lot. Some residents do not like the idea of a second store, especially a supercenter, in their small town because of the limited land available. Some feel the proposed supercenter will dwarf the town because it is out of scale for the town and the location. The supercenter would serve as the anchor store to a new shopping center development, if approved. It would become the gateway to Ceres, as travelers enter the South end of town, adjacent to the 99 freeway. But as one woman said, ‘If Wal-Mart is to symbolize the gateway to Ceres, where are we, the Twilight Zone?'”
“Other residents have similar opinions and feel Wal-Mart has oversaturated the area and does not offer anything special. Wal-Mart wants to build the new supercenter with an approximate 20% allotment for groceries, and a garden center. The architectural drawings and layout for the proposed supercenter/shopping center resembles a flat-roofed prison complex, with several semi-truck delivery bays facing a residential area. The excessive traffic associated with supercenters that are open 24/7 has residents worried about an already-congested Mitchell Road with the increase in foul air, and increased noise and light pollution.”
Fast forward to the present: Wal-Mart still has not received final approval from the city for its superstore, which has now shrunk slightly to 185,000 s.f. The city’s Planning Commission approved the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center just over three months ago, but the matter was appealed by the Citizens for Ceres to the city council. The city council held a public hearing on May 23, 2011, and voted to continue the hearing to July 11, 2011.
But this week that hearing has been delayed until August 22nd, according to the Ceres Courier — a newspaper that has taken every opportunity to criticize opponents of the superstore. The delay was not prompted by the city council, but by Wal-Mart officials. The retailer asked for more time to come up with a “sales strategy” plan for the reuse of the store it is leaving empty. The city must approve the reuse plan before granting a building permit for the massive project. But at any point in time, roughly 200 empty Wal-Mart projects are being marketed by Wal-Mart Realty.
There is an empty Wal-Mart for sale in Sacramento — but the Ceres store is not even being listed by Wal-Mart Realty. The retailer has suggested that its old store could be sold to another major retailer, like Kohl’s, or Dicks Sporting Goods, Macy’s or Dillards. But Wal-Mart has refused to sell to such competitors in the past, placing deed restrictions on the property to prevent other retailers from using their cast-of buildings. “Perhaps Wal-Mart is having difficulty formulating its sales strategy plan,” said Sherri Jacobson, one of the members of Citizens for Ceres, “because they have no intention to rent, sell or lease their property to any retailer that will actually benefit Ceres with more tax dollars and competition.”
City officials are struggling to find a way to require Wal-Mart to reuse the building if it sits empty too long. Other communities have developed a demolition bond process, requiring developers to put money into escrow to tear down a building if its becomes blighted.
Wal-Mart came to Ceres promising a “progressive” building that is “environmentally friendly and energy efficient.” But a single story building the size of four football fields is, by definition, environmentally wasteful. Placing a Wal-Mart two miles from an existing Wal-Mart is environmentally and economically wasteful. The “smaller” store will close down and leave an eyesore for public officials to fill. In 1996, Wal-Mart had 2,000 discount stores nation-wide. By 2007, that number had fallen to 1,000, because of the massive closings of the “older” stores.
Wal-Mart also promised the supercenter would create new jobs, but gave no figures regarding the number of existing jobs that would be lost as other area businesses close. One study from the Ohio consulting group Retail Forward says two grocery stores will close for every one Wal-Mart supercenter opened. The fact is, there is no market need for a supercenter in Ceres. If they wanted to expand the original store, they are apparently able to do so.
Readers are urged to email Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra at [email protected] with this message: “Dear Mayor Vierra, I am not sure what has happened to the vision of Ceres as a community with a “small neighborhood personality,” but adding a Wal-Mart superstore along with an empty Wal-Mart discount store is not going to do muchyou’re your city’s personality or its tax base. On one hand, you are promoting Ceres as a community with a revitalized, vibrant downtown. But you cannot ‘maintain a small town feel,’ and encourage sprawl at your gateway in the same breath.
If you want your downtown to be a destination point — don’t put Wal-Mart on your perimeter. Your vision for small town Ceres, and Wal-Mart’s vision of big stores, are simply not compatible. This kind of leapfrog development, where a national chain store jumps from parking lot to parking lot, is the worse kind of sprawl. You hold the power to prevent it.”
Wal-Mart probably assumed its plans to build a superstore in Ceres, California would go off without a hitch. After all, the giant retailer already had one store in Ceres, and the new superstore would be similar,just larger and loaded with groceries. But like most Wal-Mart projects, things have not gone according to plan.