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 had 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 17th, Wal-Mart announced that its Chico Supercenter plans have been scrubbed, and the company instead will focus on expanding its existing discount store. That expansion will go before the city’s Planning Commission next month. According to the Chico Enterprise-Record, the would-have-been supercenter was a whopping 242,000 s.f. store. As with the rash of other withdrawals over the past several months, 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. “We are certainly disappointed, especially after the four years we have been working on the project,” he said. Wal-Mart, under heavy criticism from Wall Street for cannibalizing its own stores, had to move back from its ambitious new store trajectory, and began lopping off projects in order to improve productivity and sales. 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. But only the driving range remains open. Wal-Mart and other big box stores are often attracted by golf courses, because they are open space, and usually contain the prerequisite number of acres. On April 9, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Butte County Board of Supervisors had unloaded a list of objections to this proposed Wal-Mart in north Chico. The county has a “Specific Plan” for North Chico that includes a “village” scale shopping center — not a superstore. The county assumed that any commercial activity on that site would serve only people in the immediate area, not a regional market. The county’s Planning Staff gave the 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 also 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.
But after more than 4 years of contentious wrangling, Butte County and the activists have won, and Wal-Mart lost.
Now that Wal-Mart has chilled in Chico, the city is left in the middle of the annexation process. The city was planning to annex a total of 148 acres into Chico. With Wal-Mart gone, the city has to pick up the cost of finishing the Environmental Impact Report. One city official suggested that the city wont invest the money now to certify the EIR. “I’m fairly certain that means that entire thing is done, at least for now,” a city official told the newspaper. If 10,000 people filled out cards saying they wanted a Wal-Mart supercenter, and Wal-Mart “recognized the demand” was there for a new store, then how come this project didn’t meet the company’s guidelines? Wal-Mart was careful not to discuss what its guidelines are — but if they are boasting about customer demand, what was the real reason the company canned the project? The answer is likely very simple: Wal-Mart has a store in Chico already, and another one would largely steal sales from the first. Wal-Mart’s same stores sales have been bumping up and down for more than a decade. In 2007, comparable store sales, which means stores open at least a year, increased by 2% — an all time low. In 2000, same store sales increased by 8%. But all during the 1980s, and up until 1993, same store sales increased by double digits. In 1985, for example, same store sales increased by 15% — and now that figure has plummeted to 2%. A second Chico supercenter made little sense economically to Wal-Mart, but the company wasted 4 years trying to make sense of this senseless location. For more information about C.A.R.E. and to download the CEPCO Survey Fact Sheet, please go to: http://www.chicocares.org/images/CEPCOWalMartSurvey.pdf. Readers are urged to email Mayor Andy Holcombe, at: [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Holcombe, Now that Wal-Mart has left you at the altar, this is an opportunity to put a cap on retail buildings to keep out the giant chain stores. If Chico had tried to annex this land, another giant legal battle would have started, so Wal-Mart has actually done you a great favor in departing — even if it was very abrupt and unilateral. That’s how chain stores act. Sure, they wasted four years of your time, and left you in the middle of an EIR, but now you’ve got a second chance to update your zoning code like many other California communities and make suburban sprawl a thing of the past. The county’s land use plan calls for village retail at that site. That’s what should happen on this land, not another big box fiasco.”