Citizen Wal-Mart is out gathering signatures in Salinas, California. On March 4, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Salinas, voted 5-2 to pass a new city ordinance banning giant superstores. Citizen Wal-Mart was not happy. The story traces back to early December, 2008, when it was announced that a former Home Depot at the Harden Ranch Plaza in Salinas had been sold to Wal-Mart for a reported $8 million. The 130,510 s.f. building had been empty for 4 years until Wal-Mart bought it. The giant retailer already has a discount store in Salinas, but now claims it needs two stores for this city of roughly 144,000 people. Wal-Mart already has a similarly-sized store on North Davis Road in Salinas. They also have a store 8 miles to the west in Marina, California. News of the purchase spurred Wal-Mart opponents into action. Salinas City Councilwoman Jyl Lutes wrote up a city ordinance that would prevent certain kinds of big box stores, including Wal-Mart, from building a supercenter. Lutes told the Monterey County Weekly that she believes the superstore will put a nearby Target and Safeway grocery store out of business. “They don’t have any problem with shutting Safeway down,” Lutes said. “Safeway is a California-based operation. The last thing we need is more California businesses going belly up.” Lutes’ ordinance simply bans stores 100,000 s.f. or larger which devote more than 5% of their square footage to grocery sales. The adoption of Lutes’ ordinance was not the end of the story. A number of California cities and towns have adopted a similar size cap on superstores — despite well-financed opposition by Wal-Mart. The retailer has gone to court to try to block such ordinances, but the courts have found that size caps are a legal zoning mechanism. Several days before the vote, a Wal-Mart spokesman tried to dodge the issue of whether or not the proposed ordinance would limit the company’s plans, saying they hadn’t nailed down how much square footage in their proposed new store would be committed to food. But Wal-Mart superstores can have 35% to 45% of their floor space set aside for groceries — so the new ordinance clearly affects the company, which has now put its plans on hold. Wal-Mart claimed that a second store in Salinas would bring 230 jobs and $500,000 in sales tax. “Those type of ordinances are limiting to their retail opportunities,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said. But this is an example of Wal-Math, in which job losses at other merchants are not counted. The net economic impact to Salinas could be negative. A 2003 study by the analyst Retail Forward warned that for every new Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two grocery stores could close. Councilwoman Lutes brought up this same issue of a big box ordinance in 2004, but the Council was scared away from the issue by Wal-Mart’s lawyers. This time Lutes won the battle. There is no legal impediment for enacting such a zoning limit on the bulk size of a structure, just as there is no limit on the height of buildings. The Harden Ranch Leasing Director told the Weekly that Wal-Mart was the only retailer willing to fill the empty parking lot after a four-year search. Harden Ranch now has an empty Circuit City to fill as well — another casualty they can lay at the feet of Wal-Mart. Now the Leasing Director sounds desperate for a Wal-Mart. “Each day they are not open is a disaster for us.” Based on the City Council’s vote, the Leasing Director has an official disaster on his hands. But this week, MSNBC reports that Wal-Mart has decided not to take No for an answer. The company is using what it calls its “Customer Action Network” (CAN)to begin an astro-roots effort to put the question of the Salinas ordinance on the ballot. Wal-Mart has created a group called “Salinas Consumers for Choice.” Despite the fact that Wal-Mart actually narrows consumer choice as smaller competitors die off, Wal-Mart likes to describe its interests as “consumer choice.” The retailer told MSNBC it has generated similar corporate-created groups in other communities where it has run into opposition to its growth plans. The Wal-Mart hatched group is now busy collecting signatures on a petition in front of its other store in Salinas to get the new ordinance placed as a citizen referendum on the city ballot. The company will then spend like a drunken retailer to identify its voters and turn them out on election day. MSNBC quotes a Wal-Mart customer in Salinas as saying, “The city could benefit from it… it would be nice to have another option instead of just Target or K-Mart.” Shoppers in Salinas already have three big box discount stores from which to choose. The Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce, which apparently has little regard for its small merchant members, told MSNBC the council’s vote for the new ordinance was an example of business profiling and goes against the city’s declared number one priority of economic growth and development. The Chamber is going to track the pro-business votes of the current council members. All of this is just an example of special interest business groups trying to get by intimidation what they could not stop by regulation.
Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and Councilwoman Janet Barnes voted against the superstore ban. Wal-Mart desperately tried to defeat the ordinance. A senior manager for public affairs gave the City Council cards signed by 2,300 Wal-Mart customers. These cards were printed up by Wal-Mart, and pushed on customers who shopped at the existing Wal-Mart store in Salinas. Wal-Mart sets up a little display table in their store, and asks shoppers to sign the card. But cards don’t win votes, and very few of those 2,300 people would ever leave their homes to go to a City Council meeting for Wal-Mart. This time the retailer’s effort was too little, too late. Wal-Mart called its opponents “a special interest” group pursuing a “short-term goal.” Wal-Mart claimed that its existing store in Salinas was “performing far beyond expectation and capacity,” according to The Californian. But Councilwoman Lutes saw a bigger disaster if Wal-Mart opened. The local grocery worker unions warned city officials what would happen in Salinas if the Lutes’ ordinance did not pass. “You bring in a Super Wal-Mart and within 24 hours stores will close down around the area,” said a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has battled Wal-Mart supercenters across California and the nation. The Mayor complained that Lutes’ proposal would send the wrong message to large stores who might have thoughts of opening up in Salinas. Readers are urged to email the Salinas Chamber of Commerce President Tiffany DiTullio at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Tiffany, I wonder how many of your 1,100 members today are aghast at your over-the-top support for a Wal-Mart supercenter in Salinas? Have you examined the studies of how Wal-Mart impacts smaller merchants? It seems bizarre that the Chamber would become so politicized as to support national chain stores replacing your local and regional businesses in Salinas. I would encourage you to lower your rhetoric, and watch carefully as Wal-Mart pays for and orchestrates every move of the “Consumers for Choice.” Instead of selling cheap Chinese underwear and bananas, Wal-Mart is now in the business of funding and directing community organizing efforts, trying to rewrite Salinas’ zoning ordinances. It’s a bad precedent for private corporations to try to rewrite city ordinances to suit their own business model. Make Wal-Mart fit into Salinas, not Salinas into Wal-Mart. This is the worst kind of a special interest ballot question, written and financed by one retailer. Wal-Mart has set up a Van Nys-based Customer Action Network to create the impression of a groundswell of local support for their company. But its just another form of corporate lobbying. Not content to merely dominate market share, Wal-Mart now wants to write your zoning code, and try to buy its way into Salinas with a second store. It is embarrassing that the Chamber is aiding and abetting them — at the expense of the small merchants who are the backbone of your middle class membership. You have abandoned these members, and ought to refund their Chamber dues.”