Another city has been jilted by Wal-Mart — but it only hurts for a little while.
In November of 2008, Wal-Mart announced that it wanted to build a 162,797 s.f. superstore in Livingston, California. Livingston describes itself as “a City on the move,” and emphasizes that it is undergoing “a period of transition and transformation due to new residential and commercial development.” This is usually code language for rapid sprawl development.
The city is located along one of California’s major freeway arteries and is just two hours from San Francisco. Livingston is part of the Merced County Enterprise Zone, one of 23 such Zones in the State of California. The EZ program “targets economically distressed areas using special state and local incentives to promote business investment and job creation. By encouraging entrepreneurship and employer growth, the program strives to create and sustain economic expansion in California communities.”
But instead of sustainable economic expansion, Livingston got a Wal-Mart application.
From the beginning, Livingston officials couldn’t stop bragging about their anticipated Wal-Mart. Located on 34 acres at the Hammatt Interchange on Highway 99, the development, called Blueberry Crossing, was slated to have a Wal-Mart, plus a motel, restaurants and other retail commercial establishments. This land had to be annexed into the City and by January of 2009, the site plan and environmental review process had begun.
Approximately 21% of the floor area was to be devoted to grocery sales. The Livingston Wal-Mart Supercenter was proposed to operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week. “It will bring approximately 450 jobs to Livingston,” according to the city. “The average California Wal-Mart associate makes $11.41 per hour.”
City officials basically cut and pasted Wal-Mart’s press release, and put it on their website. In January of 2009, the City Council voted unanimously to hire a consultant to complete an environmental impact study for the project.
Local officials were totally sold on the project. There were a few residents with mixed emotions, like Brandon Friesen, the former Mayor of Livingston, and the owner of a True Value hardware store. “I don’t mind them coming in as long as they pay their way,” Friesen told the media in 2008. Many cities fight against Wal-Mart, he said, but Livingston doesn’t have many retail stores, so Wal-Mart would address a need.
Things were looking pretty upbeat for the project — until this week. According to the Merced County Examiner, Wal-Mart suddenly pulled their Blueberry Crossing project out of the oven. The Examiner noted that the withdrawal came just a few days after Wal-Mart told Mayor Daniel Varela that the project was moving ahead.
The newspaper printed excerpts from a letter written to the Mayor by one of Wal-Mart’s PR operatives. “Thank for you interest in visiting with me to discuss the proposed Livingston Wal-Mart project,” the Wal-Mart spokesman wrote to the Mayor on June 14th. “I certainly benefited from your perspective on the project and how Wal-Mart can best serve your community. In addition to the project’s design and features, I am confident that the project will provide Wal-Mart customers the convenience of a full grocery department and even greater selection. In addition to increasing customer satisfaction, the project will provide your community the added benefit of new jobs, more tax revenue, and a reliable source of funding for local civic organizations and charities that are so important to your community’s way of life. I am confident that working together we can develop a project that benefits your community for years to come. Thank you again for visiting with me. If I can be of further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
That letter hardly sounds like a kiss-off, but several days later, Wal-Mart was gone.
The city was notified of the abrupt change in an email. “We regret to inform you that Wal-Mart has decided to not move forward with this project,” the retailers’ attorney wrote. “Please stop all work on the project as of today… . Thank you so much for your support and effort on this project. We have enjoyed working with you.”
“They completely surprised us with their announcement,” City Manager Richard Warne told the Examiner. The newspaper then quoted Al Norman from a column on The Huffington Post in March of 2008. “According to a list released this week,” Norman said, “Wal-Mart Stores has abandoned a record-shattering 45 proposed projects over the past 10 months — often leaving local officials dejected and confused. These store withdrawals usually come with little advance notice, and even less explanation.”
Readers are urged to email Livingston Mayor Daniel Varela at [email protected] with the following message: “It has been said, Mr. Mayor, that Wal-Mart changes stores as casually and you and I change shoes. I know it must be quite a blow for the city to lose its prized Wal-Mart superstore, but think of the opportunities that open up for smaller, locally-owned businesses that don’t pull up roots suddenly. Wal-Mart arrives in a community with its bags already packed. The key is to realize that you just dodged a bullet.
I know you were excited to get the first Wal-Mart superstore in the area — and maybe you were even hoping that your store would cause the Wal-Mart discount store 12 miles away in Turlock to close. The reality is that Wal-Mart wants to convert all the discount stores in your area into superstores, or else shut them down. I’m sure your local grocery stores will be pleased not to lose all that market share, and your residents who are addicted to cheap Chinese merchandise can just drive the 12 miles to Turlock if they can’t stand to shop locally.
So condolences on your loss of the Wal-Mart project — but congratulations are in order too.”