By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A battle between Wal-Mart and its critics is set to resume Thursday in front of the Rohnert Park City Council.
The world’s biggest retailer wants to add a 32,000-square-foot grocery to its Rohnert Park store — creating a Supercenter — and is appealing the city Planning Commission’s April denial of its application.
Councilmembers have scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday to hear the appeal, a measure of how much interest the issue has generated.
“We are expecting a big crowd, I expect we’ll be there for hours,” said Councilman Joe Callinan.
The issue has coalesced along lines set down in other Sonoma County confrontations over big-box stores ranging from Lowe’s in Santa Rosa to Lucky Supermarkets in Cotati.
Opponents — including county supervisors Mike Kerns and Shirlee Zane, whose districts include Rohnert Park — argue that giant corporations like Wal-Mart fray community identities, depress wages and hurt local economies by swamping smaller employers that may offer better pay and benefits.
Supporters maintain that commercial competition, as the guiding principle of the U.S. economy, creates more and better choices and lower prices for consumers.
It’s a conflict often defined by how tough it is to resolve.
Laura Martinez felt it, standing outside the Safeway store on Commerce Boulevard.
It would be unfair, said Martinez, 50, to prohibit Wal-Mart’s expansion, “but I worry about stores like this, where my husband works, and about Raley’s, where my son works.”
Then she added, “But being a consumer also, I know that low prices are important.”
Andie McHatton felt it, shopping at Pacific Market, which for Wal-Mart opponents has become a primary symbol of the damage they say the Supercenter would inflict on its competitors and the local economy.
“Affordable groceries are really important to people,” said McHatton, 58, adding that Rohnert Park “is really growing and we do have a lot of needs, so I think something like that could be useful.”
Still, she said, Wal-Mart’s labor practices concern her and “I would really hate to see this store (Pacific Market) go down. So I’m mixed.”
The bottom line, Wal-Mart says, is that its grocery would be good for consumers in Rohnert Park and beyond.
“We believe competition is good for all communities, it’s good for our customers,” said spokeswoman Angela Stoner, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
But that competition, said Pacific Market owner Ken Silveira, “would close my store.”
The Golf Course Drive store is part of a three-store Sonoma County chain whose employees earn an average of $15.32 an hour plus benefits.
An environmental impact report for the expansion project warned that the market would be most vulnerable to closing due to competition from Wal-Mart. Critics of the project cite that conclusion as an example of “the Wal-Mart effect.”
“Their size gives them an outsized effect in terms of how they affect the rest of the labor market,” said Ben Boyce, a Sonoma labor activist and a consultant to Silveira in the anti-Supercenter campaign. “I regard them as part of the engine of downward mobility for the American working class.”
Opponents also have argued that the expansion would increase traffic and be counter to the development of businesses and housing along the route of the planned SMART commuter train alongside Highway 101.
And they have promoted a recent study by Sonoma State University’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, commissioned by Silveira, that said local employers would lose between 105 and 211 jobs to Wal-Mart’s competition.
Wal-Mart campaign materials circulating in Rohnert Park say the company pays “competitive wages” averaging $12.10 per hour for full-time employees, as well as “comprehensive benefits,” and supports 287,863 “supplier jobs” in the state.
For Boyce and others opposing the Supercenter, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company has a king-sized stature in the landscape of big-box battles.
Wal-Mart, they argue, is in a class of its own when it comes to overwhelming its competition, paying workers less than other stores and offering few benefits, allowing it to sell products for less, which puts other retailers out of business and their employees out of work.
“It’s clear you can’t build a healthy economy based on low wages, minimal benefits and on companies that are not recycling money into the local economy,” said Boyce, who was also part of a successful campaign to defeat a proposed Wal-Mart store in Roseland in 2009.
“Wal-Mart is kind of like the Cadillac of the industry, so to speak,” said Paul Kaplan, Rohnert Park co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, which calls for wages high enough to allow workers to live in the area. “When there’s an issue around Wal-Mart it takes on that kind of significance.”
In rejecting the project, planning commissioners, on a 4-0 vote, ruled that the Wal-Mart grocery would be inconsistent with the city’s general plan. The plan, which calls for support of grocery stores in neighborhoods, says “Rohnert Park’s residential population can support only a limited number of supermarkets.”
In filing its appeal, Wal-Mart said only that its proposal “is consistent with the General Plan,” an argument its attorneys can be expected to flesh out on Thursday.
The fliers and mailers that the company has distributed make a broader case.
The company concedes the EIR’s finding about Pacific Market’s potential closure. But it points out that the report also said the store is already “the weakest performer” in the area the Wal-Mart grocery would be serving and that in the event it closed, it would be partly due to existing “poor sales.”
Wal-Mart in its literature also says the bigger store will add 85 new full- and part-time jobs, some of them managerial, to its current payroll of 300; will increase the city’s sales tax revenue by expanding its general merchandise offerings; and, in a pitch supporters echo, will offer access to “affordable groceries.”
“I think they should turn around and allow it,” said Gene Fudge, 70. “It’s the only place in town where the prices are lower than the (other) food chains.”
Opponents have rallied their supporters through telephone bank operations, door-to-door canvassing, and efforts to gather petition signatures and get residents to send opposition postcards to councilmembers.
“We’ve covered most of Rohnert Park and we’ll have covered the entirety of the city” by Thursday, said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, one of a loose coalition working to defeat the project.
“No on Wal-Mart,” said Wally Tannehill, 61. “I believe in supporting the independent grocers and businesses in our city.”
Stoner, the Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the company is a longtime, active member of the Rohnert Park community and that it has made overtures to potentially rival grocers.
“We have reached out to Pacific Market and shared that we want to work together to come up with solutions to how the entire business community in Rohnert Park, including our competitors, can get through this tough economy,” she said.
Those efforts have received no response, she said.
Mayor Pam Stafford said much of the council’s deliberations on Thursday will revolve around what the city can or cannot do.
“My responsibility is to protect the city and the legality of what we do is really what I have to focus on,” she said.