Highland, California has roughly 52,000 people. It also has an existing Wal-Mart discount store on East Highland Avenue. There are no less than 11 existing Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Highland, but almost all of them are discount stores Wal-Mart would like to either expand or relocate into supercenters. Highland describes itself as “primarily a residential community,” located in the “Inland Empire” of Southern California. “Highland takes great pride in being one of the most desirable communities in which to live in the Inland Empire,” the city writes, “with low crime, high safety, and an emphasis on community beautification.” This past week word leaked out that a new Wal-Mart supercenter won’t be part of those beautification plans. The retailer’s plans to build a superstore on a golf range have been shut down. City officials admitted that the project review had almost finished the course. “We were close to wrapping it up and getting it to public hearings,” the City Planner told the Press-Enterprise newspaper. A consultant hired by the city was in the middle of an environmental impact report. The withdrawal of the project comes roughly a year after Wal-Mart first filed for a permit in June of 2007 to build a 163,000 square foot store. A Wal-Mart official explained that the company is now focusing on existing stores like the one on East Highland avenue, which the company now wants to expand into a supercenter. “If a new opportunity arises, we will certainly look at it,” the company’s spokesman told the newspaper. Wal-Mart put out a press release which said the retailer opened 281 Supercenters in 2006, and had planned to open 195 more in 2007. Wal-Mart said its company’s capital spending will actually fall in the U.S. this year, as new construction plans increase internationally. In America, the focus will be on moving and expanding existing stores to supercenters, the release said. City officials said Wal-Mart called them to break the news, and then sent a letter. The city’s planner told the Press-Enterprise that he was disappointed by the turn of events, and was unsure what would come next, because Wal-Mart still owns the golf range. “The city’s hoping there’ll be something there,” the planner said. “If not a Wal-Mart, another retail use.” To console themselves over their loss, the city is busy working on another big box project elsewhere in the city, called “Highland Crossings,” which will feature a 170,343 s.f. Lowe’s Home Improvement store. So much for community beautification. Highland becomes the 67th community to see its Wal-Mart superstore project cancelled or delayed since June 2, 2007.
On the one hand, Highland officials talk in their Master Plan about the unique natural setting of their city, nestled between the San Bernardino National Forest and the Santa Ana River. They say they appreciate “how crucial this natural setting is to their long-term community identity.” On the other hand, they welcome suburban sprawl. The community says it is resigned to not being a “commercial powerhouse.” “We have never envisioned competing in the all-encompassing scramble for tax dollars that consume so many municipalities,” the city says. Yet they see companies like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart as having “potential to provide both job growth and tax revenues, given good timing and proper direction.” The city’s vision for all its planning is “the idea of home — for individuals, for families, for our entire community. This is a place in which small town values and heritage combine with contemporary standards and practices to sustain an economically vibrant and environmentally sound future.” The city tells people they can “come home to Highland,” but will they find local businesses gone, and an ever-expanding strip of big box stores? “Highland will never lead the region in retail sales,” the city’s Plan admits. “However, the City is moving to make the best use of its existing retail land through more consolidated development, a centrally located Town Center, quality design standards and flexible land use designations.” That sounds like a confused vision, one which will never undermine their vision of ‘small town values.’ Readers are urged to email Highland Mayor Penny Lilburn at [email protected] with the following message: “Mayor Lilburn, Now that Wal-Mart has left you at the altar, it’s a good time for Highland to push back from the table and determine whether or not more big box sprawl is the way your community can ‘come home.’ You say you want to protect your natural environment and promote small town values, yet you are chasing big box dreams in the very kind of ‘all-encompassing scramble for tax dollars’ that your Master Plan says you are trying to avoid. Now is the time to pass a zoning change that limits the size of retail stores, so you don’t end up with more out-of-scale projects like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. Your city is already saturated with big boxes. Pursue your Town Center vision — but you won’t get their by driving past more Wal-Marts.”