In just about a month, voters in Mesa, Arizona will decide the fate of a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter — again. This is the fourth location that Wal-Mart has had to fight for on its way into town. This project will have 335,000 s.f. of retail space. Residents in Mesa filed this report: “On March 12, Mesa voters will decide on Proposition 300 — whether or not to approve the city council’s 4- to 3 vote in favor of changing existing zoning laws to allow for a Wal-Mart superstore to be built on a 35-acre lot near the city’s airport. The proposed change is from industrial to commercial. In the informational booklet sent to Mesa voters, the reasons cited by those in favor of the Wal-Mart superstore include: creation of new jobs, reduced driving by residents of the area, reduced air pollution, reduced wear-and-tear on surface streets, and lower prices for the consumer. Supporters of the zoning change also say that the new store would replace the currently vacant lot, which they describe as “an eyesore”, saying that it looks like “bunkers”. Those against the zoning change give the following reasons for being opposed to it: increased traffic and negative effects on existing businesses in the area. They also mention that the store will be built on land that was set aside for industry. They say that Wal-Mart is no substitute for the high-paying jobs that would potentially be created if an industrial or manufacturing firm built on the site.” According to the Arizona Republic newspaper, a political committee backed by Wal-Mart funds has spent almost $84,000 backing the zoning change. By comparison, Wal-Mart opposition groups have spent less than $300 combined. Money doesn’t always win elections — but it sure helps it happen. In 2001, voters in Glendale, Arizona rejected Wal-Mart by a vote of 11,438 to 7,692, even though Wal-Mart spent $467,000 on that one ballot question. On February 7, 2000, the Mesa City Council voted 4-3 to approve the rezoning, but local residents gathered 4,691 signatures on a petition to force the public referendum. Residents can begin early voting for that election this week. An astro-roots group (as opposed to grassroots) has been formed by Wal-Mart. Voters for a Better Mesa has spent more than $22,000 telemarketing and direct mailing. “We didn’t ask to do this,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told the newspaper (of course not, they won the Council vote). “Now that it is here, we feel obligated to educate and inform the voters of Mesa why they should affirm the City Council’s decision.” To Wal-Mart, education means money. The corporation has seeded the Voters for a Better Mesa with $84,500. When the City Council first reviewed the superstore and gas station plan, the Planning and Zoning board developed 20 minor conditions on the store, including “provide architectural interest and relief for all buildings, on all sides…provide for a significant citrus character within the landscape plan…provide adequate area for pedestrians in front of the Wal-Mart entryways…and no overnight camping or RV parking on this lot”. During the City Council hearing, residents complained of negative impacts on property values and safety; increased traffic and accidents; the fact that expensive homes are located in close vicinity; the fact that the site’s proximity to the airport renders the property valuable and therefore should be preserved for more appropriate uses in the future; concerns regarding pollution and noise; the fact that Wal-Mart stores are located in close proximity and residents can access those stores within a very short driving time; and Mesa’s efforts to attract high-scale businesses to the area rather than “big-box” developments. One Councilmember commented that the City of Mesa is littered with remnants of poor zoning decisions, and that strip malls are struggling to survive. He predicted that “big-box” retail will be the strip malls of the future. A second Councilor questioned what would happen to the facility if Wal-Mart decided to move. Mesa’s Mayor said the city depends on sales tax revenues, and voted to support the rezoning. His vote made the tally 4-3, and the rezoning was approved, leading to the current challenge by citizens.
This is a classic example of sprawl vs. you all. The developer promises sales tax nirvana, the residents challenge the “downzoning” of prime industrial land for prevailing wage jobs, and to protect home values and quality of life in the community. Two grocery stores already have failed in Mesa recently, plus Service Merchandise and other stores. Into this weak retail environment, comes Wal-Mart, the great American Dust Machine. Fasten your seatbelts, residents of Mesa, Wal-Mart is going to find out if your city is for sale to the highest biddeer. For past stories on Mesa, search by that word on this database. For other voter campaigns, search by “election”.