Wal-Mart’s bid to supersize its Rohnert Park store by adding a 32,000-square-foot grocery goes to the city’s Planning Commission Thursday night in what promises to be the latest salvo in a battle between those who love the company’s lower prices and critics of the world’s biggest retailer.
Since Wal-Mart announced its Supercenter plan last year, speakers from Rohnert Park and beyond have appeared at City Council meetings to oppose or support the proposal and letter writing campaigns have started on either side.
“It’s probably something I’ve heard more about recently than anything,” said Mayor Pam Stafford.
“I think there’s going to be an equal number of people who think it’s the worst thing in the world and an equal number who think it’s great,” Stafford said. “What I’m getting from people is equally divided.”
The 7 p.m. Thursday meeting at Rohnert Park City Hall will be the first public hearing held to review the environmental impact report prepared for the project.
Rohnert Park resident Jane Poole said she supports the expansion because a Wal-Mart grocery would provide tough and needed competition for other local stores.
“I think competition is good for all business. I think it makes them stronger,” she said.
“The areas I’ve traveled to where they have Wal-Mart Supercenters, I have found the quality of the products they have in those facilities on a par with or better than anything else around here,” Poole said.
Ample competition already exists, say opponents like David Green, of Rohnert Park, who said he shops at Raley’s and Pacific Market and wants to support locally-based businesses.
“There’s plenty of local grocery stores in town that more than cover the public’s needs,” said Green.
Much of the opposition to the expansion has coalesced around concerns about Wal-Mart’s labor practices. Leading the charge are people who helped defeat a proposed Wal-Mart store in Roseland in 2009 by sounding similar themes.
“Wal-Mart does not pay a living wage,” said Martin Bennett, a Santa Rosa Junior College history instructor and co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition, which campaigns for wages that pay workers enough money to live in the area. “Our issue is that Wal-Mart is the largest corporation and the most profitable corporation in America, they can pay a living wage.”
Wal-Mart overwhelms its competition by paying workers less and providing fewer benefits, allowing it to sell products for less, putting other retailers out of business and people out of work, Bennett said.
A preliminary environmental report for the Wal-Mart Supercenter project said it would would pose a particular threat to Pacific Market, which is about the same size as Wal-Mart’s proposed expansion and has 50 employees who earn an average of $15.32 an hour plus benefits.
“These are real job killers,” Bennett said of Supercenters, “and they kill good jobs.”
Wal-Mart says the store will add 85 new full- and part-time jobs. A recent study by Sonoma State University’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis — commissioned by Pacific Market — said that local employers would lose between 105 and 211 jobs to Wal-Mart’s competition.
Opponents say they have rallied a large crowd for Thursday night’s meeting.
“This is a very important issue for the community because this will determine to some degree the business landscape of Rohnert Park,” said Ben Boyce, of Sonoma, a consultant to GoLocal Sonoma, a chapter of a national advocacy group for local businesses and economies.
“People are recognizing that it does make a difference if you support an ecology of local economics,” Boyce said, citing the SSU study, which found that Pacific Market has 61 local and regional vendors who together employ about 4,000 people.
He said his group plans to also argue that Wal-Mart’s grocery wouldn’t equal more revenue for the cash-strapped city because food sales aren’t taxed.
Wal-Mart has sponsored its own direct mail campaign, arguing the project will benefit the city and that its competitors should not be protected.
“Our city cannot afford to turn down jobs and economic development opportunities such as this,” the company’s flier says. “Wal-Mart should not be punished for the struggles faced by select Rohnert Park businesses who apparently want the city to shield them from competition.”
In a sign of how divisive debates over big-box stores can be, the Rohnert Park Chamber of Commerce has not taken a position on the proposal.
“It’s just a matter of a business decision,” said Amy Ahanotu, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. “At this point we would rather let the process work itself through rather than taking sides.
“We are interested in businesses expansion” in general, he said, “it’s just that it’s not something that at this time needed to be addressed.”