On March 13, 2004, Sprawl-Busters posted a story about the battle in Hemet, California to stop a Wal-Mart superstore. The citizens went to Riverside Superior court to try to block the superstore. Their suit was against the city, the developer, and Wal-Mart. One city Councilman told Press-Enterprise newspaper, “I wish there was some way we could help these people understand that this is a good thing for the valley.” The group hired Temecula, California-based lawyer Ray Johnson, who had sued Wal-Mart before on behalf of residents. “The goal is to minimize the impact of Wal-Mart on the people,” Johnson said. “If that means no Wal-Mart, so be it.” The store was eventually built 50 feet from the homes of some neighbors. Given this backdrop, residents in Hemet woke up to some better news this week, when it was reported by the Press-Enterprise that Wal-Mart’s plans to add a Sam’s Club to its holdings in Hemet, have been scrubbed. The newspaper called it a “long-planned Sam’s Club” on Florida Avenue, and indicated that now Wal-Mart will have to sell its property. Hemet Assistant City Manager Duane Baker blamed “the weakening economy” on Wal-Mart’s hemorrhaging in Hemet. “They’re not building anywhere in the valley,” Baker told the newspaper. “We would have loved to have them.” A Wal-Mart spokesman added, “We just don’t have plans right now to move forward with that application. We’re going to have very strategic growth and focus our capital resources” in more profitable areas, he said. This Sam’s Club proposal dates back three years, when Wal-Mart unveiled a plan to raze their former Wal-Mart building, which was shut down to accommodate their supercenter. When the new superstore opened in 2004, the “old” Wal-Mart, all 130,226 s.f. of it, was abandoned. With plans to tear it down, Wal-Mart said it wanted to build a 135,000 s..f Sam’s Club, with a gas station in the parking lot. But since that 2005 announcement, nothing happened on the property. The empty Wal-Mart was never torn down. It is still listed for sale or lease afer four years. The property is described as a “free-standing building adjacent to Hemet Town Center with Regal Cinema 12-Plex, McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese.” The 13.5 acre site is advertised by a real estate company from Ontario, California as being “across from Hemet Valley Mall, a 252,000 SF enclosed regional mall anchored by JCPenney, Sears, and Gottschalks.” Wal-Mart said all along that the lack of activity over the past several years did not mean they had abandoned their project. They said they were considered other ways to use the building, perhaps refurbishing the building instead of demolishing it. The company said Sam’s Club shoppers can still travel to nearby Riverside and Murrieta, California for the same shopping experience. As always, Wal-Mart left the door open on their future plans, so that residents can never really relax and move on to other concerns. “Hemet is growing. We’re optimistic, someday we’ll be able to build there,” Wal-Mart told the Press-Enterprise. Assistant City Manager Baker said Wal-Mart’s pull out was a disappointment. But he said the city would not be hurt financially by the deal’s collapse, because the city’s budget has not assumed any revenue from the former Wal-Mart building.
Hemet said Yes to a superstore — over the objections of its residents, who took them to court — and now they are reaping the results: an empty building nearly the size of three football fields along one of its main commercial corridors. After four years sitting empty, the prospect of this property being fully recycled are slim. Wal-Mart currently lists more than 1,012 properties across the country it is trying to sell or lease. The Hemet experience illustrates the environmentally wasteful policy Wal-Mart has adopted of abandoning very large stores, only to erect larger ones down the road. The abandoned properties can sit for years on the market, deteriorating, becoming blighted. Hemet gained very little economically from the switch from a discount store to a superstore. Area grocery stores felt the impact, but sales taxes would not have jumped much, because most of the “new” sales at the Wal-Mart came from the old Wal-Mart, which went dark. Readers are urged to email Assistant City Manager Duane Baker by going to: http://www.cityofhemet.org/forms/cmanager_email.htm, and sending the following message: “Dear Mr. Baker, Now that Wal-Mart has left Hemet at the altar, and your Sam’s Club plan has evaporated, perhaps its time for Hemet to seriously consider passing a zoning ordinance that limits the size of retail buildings, and requires developers to tear down any store they build that remains vacant for longer than 24 months, so that you are not subject to the whim of big box chain stores. How long is that eyesore going to remain on Florida Avenue? You are now stuck with a huge dead building along your main commercial corridor. Your supercenter tax base took away your discount store tax base, and, as you have noted, your budget now cannot rely on any sales taxes from the empty Wal-Mart. These chain stores are playing a game of retail musical chairs with Hemet, and your zoning code has allowed this to happen. You should not be ‘disappointed’ by Wal-Mart, you should be frustrated that they have left you with a big hole in your retail infrastructure.”