Wal-Mart got a great lesson in democracy this week, but its not a lesson they are going to like.
On May 10, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a newspaper poll in Rohnert Park, California indicated that the public is losing enthusiasm for big box stores.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that its readers were “generally opposed to many of the pending big-box plans in Sonoma County, including a proposed Lowe’s in Santa Rosa and a Wal-Mart expansion in Rohnert Park.”
54% of readers opposed a plan by Wal-Mart to expand its Rohnert Park store on Redwood Drive by 32,000 s.f., and another 12% were unsure. Only 34% supported Wal-Mart’s expansion plans. “Please, we do not need an expanded Wal-Mart in Rohnert Park,” wrote a Rohnert Park resident. “I never go to that store.”
68% of those who took the survey said they were willing to pay more for an item if they knew they were supporting a locally owned business. 56% said they “frequently” or “always” made their shopping decisions based on whether the store is locally owned. “For every dollar spent, only 15 cents are recirculated locally when a purchase is made at a national chain,” wrote a resident of Windsor, California. “Forty-five cents are recirculated when that same dollar is spent at a locally owned chain. National chains rob us of economic sustainability.”
This week, the opposition to Wal-Mart’s expansion in Rohnert Park became official. At a Planning Commissioners hearing, Wal-Mart couldn’t scrape up one vote in support of super-sizing its current discount store in Rohnert Park.
According to the Sonoma State Star newspaper, Wal-Mart got whiffed 4-0 by the Planning Commissioners, who cited the project’s environmental impact report as the reason to reject the expansion.
A large crowd filled the city council chambers, as members of the public raised concerns about traffic congestion, about impact on existing grocers like Pacific Market, and the loss of local jobs. Other opponents focused on the wisdom of buying local, reducing green house gas emissions, and supporting local agriculture. A major concern was the traffic congestion that a larger store would generate — an outcome that even Wal-Mart admitted was unacceptable, the State Star said.
An economic impact report paid for by Pacific Market, and conducted by Sonoma State College’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, concluded that the Wal-Mart expansion would lead to a net loss of 105 to 211 jobs. A Wal-Mart spokesman insisted that the store expansion would “create” 85 new jobs.
To help make its case, Wal-Mart brought along a number of its employees to testify at the hearing. The Wal-Mart spokeswoman told the Commissioners, “We’ve been a part of the community for 17 years and we’ve heard loud and clear from our supporters that they want and need added services to make their lives better.” But that scripted tag line did not sway any votes.
After the vote a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart told the Press Democrat that the result was “a great disappointment” to Wal-Mart. Opponents of the project expect that Wal-Mart will appeal the Planning Commission decision to the Rohnert Park City Council. The Chair of the Commissioners, John Gorba, told the crowd that the large turnout of the public was “a great lesson in democracy.”
Wal-Mart has directed its future growth plans to converting its existing discount stores into larger supercenters, or, more recently, doing “in-box conversions,” in which the store’s interior is shifted from a discount store to a supercenter — without adding a single square foot in size.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat poll suggests that many residents in the North Bay area have had their fill with larger and larger national chains, and that further development of this format will not be well received.
The fact is, most large big box projects today are being opposed by local residents, and this opposition can be very costly to developers and chain stores. What might be a three month permitting process can devolve into a three year battle, if citizens decide to challenge the big developers.
Often local residents lack the expertise and money to level the playing field, but many big box plans end up with a lawsuit, not a ribbon cutting.
The process is not over in Rohnert Park. Wal-Mart will typically appeal rulings that don’t go its way. Readers are urged to email Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Stafford, I urge you to lobby your colleagues on the City Council to uphold the 4-0 vote of your Planning Commissioners in rejecting an expansion to the Redwood Drive Wal-Mart.
The fact is, Wal-Mart could remodel its interior floor area to do what it wants to do, without adding a single square foot to its building. This expansion just wastes more land, and could result in a net loss of jobs, according to the Center for Regional Economic Analysis study. This is not economic development, but economic displacement.
The city would witness a net job loss, and in return get traffic congestion that costs more money to fix, more pollution, and more money leaving the local economy.
Your Planning Commissioners were right to reject this expansion — and no one on the Commission supported it. I hope the City Council will ratify that vote when the Wal-Mart appeal reaches you.”