Wal-Mart is trying to add a new skill to its resume: community organizer. The giant retailer for several years has been promoting its “Customer Action Network (CAN) as a web-based organization to help defeat its opponents in local site fights.
One of the most prominent active cases is in Patterson, California, where the CAN effort is gearing up for a critical City Council vote on Tuesday, October 5th.
There are four Wal-Mart discount stores within 20 miles of Patterson. This small community of roughly 19,200 people will get the area’s first Wal-Mart supercenter if the giant retailer has its way. In January of 2009, Wal-Mart applied to the city of Patterson to build a 158,173 s.f. supercenter right across the street from a SaveMart grocery store.
Sprawl-Busters reported on February 18, 2009 that this supercenter proposal had already stirred up a controversy in the community. “You’ve got people on both sides, definitely, and it is probably a little more heated than normal,” the City manager told the Press-Standard.
Wal-Mart launched a website to promote its Patterson store. Wal-Mart has been organizing this “Customer Action Network” in California and New England, to help grease the skids locally. At their website for Patterson, http://www.pattersoncan.com/ Wal-Mart says: “Wal-Mart is pleased to introduce plans to build a store in Patterson that will combine the same quality products available at a regular Wal-Mart store with a full line of grocery items, all at our signature Everyday Low Prices. With the support of the community, we can create 450 new jobs with health care benefits for as low as $8 a month, new sales tax revenue for local public services and financial support for Patterson charities. We hope that you’ll take the time to explore this website and its fact sheets to learn about the store’s architectural design, and energy efficient and environmentally friendly features — and so much more.”
The site features a picture of what the ‘skin’ of the store would look like — a ‘village supercenter’ format that Wal-Mart has been favoring — which attempts to look more like a traditional mall, with a variety of “small” storefronts. In reality, the fa??ade merely hides the big box behind the exterior. The box would be the size of three football fields. Wal-Mart says the design is “subject to the approval of the city of Patterson.”
Wal-Mart describes its CAN initiative as “a program to keep customers informed about government issues that affect Wal-Mart and its ability to provide good value for your shopping dollar. When government tries to limit your shopping choices, or interfere in Wal-Mart’s ability to offer Everyday Low Prices, Customer Action Network members can help by expressing their opinion.”
Wal-Mart tells shoppers that “as a member of the Customer Action Network, you CAN help us protect your right to good value for your hard-earned shopping dollar. By joining the Customer Action Network, you can exercise your right to participate in local and state government! When elected officials consider laws that affect Wal-Mart’s ability to offer you Everyday Low Prices and convenient shopping on general merchandise and groceries it’s important they hear from you! Elected officials need to know how important low prices and quality merchandise is to hardworking people everywhere.”
Wal-Mart filed its plans with the city one year and nine months ago, proposing a superstore that would be open 24/7, and would be the largest retail store in the history of Patterson. “We have continued to monitor Patterson for some time,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told The Irrigator newspaper. “We believe the population in the area would support it.”
Under California law, this project was required to produce an environmental impact report to lay out the project’s impact on traffic, wildlife, air quality, and other factors. The site now is an undeveloped open field. A company called Sperry Commercial LP owns the land, and has been talking with Wal-Mart since late 2007. If the City Council approves the project, Wal-Mart will purchase the land. “It is a permitted use on that property, but is would be a planned development, which puts some other requirements on them,” the city manager told the Press-Standard.
“As part of the EIR, they do an economic study which basically studies the impact it would have on other businesses. We want to look at all of that information. We want to make an informed decision which benefits the community,” the city staffer concluded. “It is going to be a difficult decision, whichever way they go.” The City Council must certify the final EIR before voting to approve the Wal-Mart superstore.
This week the Patterson Irrigator newspaper reported that Wal-Mart’s environmental impact report addresses concerns about the store’s location. A consulting firm, Michael Brandman Associates, says there are no other alternative locations in Patterson that would satisfy California Environmental Quality Act guidelines. That was of little comfort to Alex Abbley, a neighbor of the project who has threatened to sue the city if the Council approves the project. “There’s no way they can compensate me for what I’m going to lose here,” Abbley said he originally bought his home for $430,0000, and he said that value already has plummeted by $150,000 without the shopping center. If Wal-Mart is approved, Abbley says he will not be able to get $200,000 for his house. The homeowner suggested that either the city or Wal-Mart should buy his home. “I just want to get the hell out of here,” he said. “I don’t want to live with this traffic.”
Abbley was joined by a group of more than 20 residents in a nearby residential development signed have asked the city to consider another site for the project along a major highway, away from residential homes. But the environmental report, first released on September 17th, were “too small,” but the consultants never suggested that perhaps Wal-Mart could shrink the size of its footprint to fit other more appropriate sites.
On their Patterson website this week, Wal-Mart urged supporters to turn out to the City Council Hearing on October 5th! “With the support of the City’s Planning Commission and hundreds of Wal-Mart supporters, we are one step closer to bringing you a Patterson Wal-Mart store! However, more needs to be done! To bring you the benefits of this new store, we need supporters to attend the October 5th City Council hearing. The Council has the final say on the future of the project and this is why supporters like YOU need to attend this very important hearing!”
Last July, Wal-Mart touted a study which said that Wal-Mart would generate “a sizeable amount of tax revenue that could be added to the city’s general fund. Each year, the store is estimated to generate about $751,000 in sales tax and $63,000 in costs to the city, creating an annual surplus of $688,000 for the city’s general fund in all.” These figures contained no offset from other merchants that would go out of business if the Patterson Wal-Mart opens.
The Patterson Wal-Mart would be the largest in the county. Two Modesto stores tally in at 124,170 square feet and about 117,000 square feet; a Ceres store is 140,523 square feet; and a Turlock store is 135,351 square feet, according to the county assessor’s office.
The facility would also dwarf stores on the other side of Sperry Avenue. Save Mart Supermarkets is about 49,500 square feet, less than one-third the size of Wal-Mart. The portion of Wal-Mart dedicated to groceries alone would be almost that size, at 33,047 square feet. The Wal-Mart superstore will be three times bigger than the Save Mart grocery store across the road, which is roughly 49,500 s.f. The Save Mart is likely to fold if this superstore is approved. That job loss has not been calculated by consultants.
The Wal-Mart Patterson site urges supporters to write letters to the editor in favor of the superstore, and to send emails to the Mayor and members of the Patterson City Council. Instead of selling cheap underwear and Chinese toys, Wal-Mart has had to spend time and money imitating grassroots organizing groups. It’s called mobilizing your base, and Wal-Mart has been forced to create these public relations campaigns to counter their opponents.
Wal-Mart has asked the California courts to force anti-Wal-Mart groups in California to open up their bank accounts so that Wal-Mart can see who is funding their opponents. This request came after last June’s report by the Wall Street Journal that competing grocery stores and unions had been paying the Saint Consulting Group of Massachusetts to organize efforts to block Wal-Mart expansion. The court has agreed to let Wal-Mart pursue such inquiries.
Readers are urged to take the following two actions to counter Wal-Mart’s CAN efforts: 1) write a letter to Patterson Mayor Becky Campo at: [email protected] opposing the Wal-Mart project. Email her a copy of this story; 2) email a letter to the editor of the Irrigator at: [email protected] 3) send an email to Wal-Mart CAN at: [email protected], telling the retailer that you have sent an email against their project to the Mayor’s office.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. Wal-Mart has learned from its consultants that if you want to get public support for your huge projects, you have to use the same tactics that anti-Wal-Mart groups have been using for years. Setting up websites, and encouraging customers to protect their “shopping choices” has become the new civil rights battle for Wal-Mart. It’s all part of helping the Walton billionaires ‘live better.’