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A community scourge or consumer boon?

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 Wal-Mart store in Rohnert Park.

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.





14 Responses to “A community scourge or consumer boon?”

  1. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    For the anti-Wal-Mart folks, let me ask a hypothetical question:

    For the anti-Wal-Mart folks, let me ask a hypothetical question:
    If Wal-Mart was a car store and only sold Ford’s, Chevrolet’s, Jeeps, Dodge’s and Chrysler’s, and Pacific Market only sold Honda’s, Toyota’s, Nissan’s, Lexus, Hyundai’s, Kia’s and such, which ‘store’ did you spend your money at when you bought your last few cars and trucks? For all the people who are so anti-Wal-Mart because they only sell ‘cheap goods and destroy the American dream’, what’s in your driveway? These same people want to shop wherever they want and buy whatever brand of automobile they want, many not even buying from within the county of Sonoma. I’d bet that all the people against Wal-Mart would argue ‘till the end of time’ their right to shop and buy a vehicle that is foreign-made, or by a company that sends its profits overseas, even though our very own US auto industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

    The distance from Wal-Mart to most of the E, F, G and H section residents is one mile, or a lot more; if Pacific Market serves their needs so well, why wouldn’t these residents continue shopping at Pacific Market, if that’s already their market of choice? The typical Wal-Mart shopper from other sections of RP, or the outlying areas, likely don’t shop at Pacific Market anyway, so it’s not like there will be any additional market-share loss. And people on a tight grocery budget within any section of RP very likely don’t shop at Pacific Market at all.

    Both stores have their own specific markets they cater to, and neither really coincides; with the approval of the Wal-Mart expansion, Pacific Market is in control of its own destiny. When most businesses fail, it’s because they didn’t have the proper business-management plan and didn’t change with the competitive tides.

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  2. terry tinagero says:

    Does anyone remember when walmart advertized “Made in America” only products??

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  3. @Andy- I couldn’t agree more with your statement, “Its not sinister to canvas neighborhoods and let people know about important local issues and encourage them to participate. It’s the American way.” Remember Paul Revere, people? I hope that someone shows up at my door hooting and hollering if the tea party people come creeping into my town.

    Sonoma County Conservation Action organizes on a local level on local environmental issues- to protect and conserve natural resources for future generations and to keep our County’s landscape from becoming a thing of the past. We’ve been there with the voters of this County as they’ve put 8 voter approved Urban Growth Boundaries into place; passed and then renewed a sales tax measure to protect open space, agricultural lands and our scenic landscape; overwhelmingly passed SMART Rail and Trail; and voted for community separators.

    I could talk about the countless doors SCCA has knocked on, signatures our organizers have gathered, and the grassroots support we’ve found from the residents of this county; but I’d rather say this- there is no hidden agenda, or secret cabal. I’m in it to protect what is not rightly ours to destroy- the amazing natural diversity and environment that we are privileged to enjoy here in Sonoma County, CA.

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  4. Ben Boyce says:

    “Planning Commission decision on Wal-Mart should be upheld by Rohnert Park City Council”

    On April 22nd, the Planning Commission voted unanimously against the Wal-Mart proposal to super-size the Rohnert Park site into a regional Super Center. Wal-Mart then filed an appeal, taking the matter to the City Council, which Wal-Mart is asking to overturn the considered decision of the commissioners.

    Rob Eyler, Chair of the Economics Department at SSU, was commissioned to do a study on the impacts of the proposed Wal-Mart Super Center. The detailed study clearly demonstrated that the SuperCenter would be a losing proposition for the city. He makes the following points:
    • Wal-Mart claims that the expansion will add 85 new jobs. However, the Eyler report calculates that when all factors are considered between 100 and 200 jobs will be lost.
    • The quality of jobs will decrease: Bay Area supermarkets pay 60% higher wages than Wal-Mart, and in addition about $8 per hour in benefits against under $2 per hour for Wal-Mart.
    • A local business network of 60 vendors and suppliers employing over 4,000 residents will be damaged by the SuperCenter.
    • Because the overwhelming increase in sales by Wal-Mart will be in non-taxable groceries ($23.0 million out of $23.1 million) there will be an insignificant increase in tax revenues.

    The proposed Wal-Mart SuperCenter cannot resolve the problems identified in the EIR, and it is not in conformance with the city’s General Plan objectives. This appeal should be rejected, on the basis of the concerns raised by the Planning Commission.

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  5. Andy says:

    The Wal Mart expansion violates the city’s general plan and was denied after hearings and evidence by the planning commission. It is not at all a given that it will pass. If the city council is smart they will deny it. All you people who are paranoid about sustainability are truly ignorant and misguided. Please turn off Fox news and go read a book.Oh and Jenny SCCA is a membership group with people just like yourself who live here and pay dues to support the organization. They are entitled to do that because we live in a democracy. Its not sinister to canvas neighborhoods and let people know about important local issues and encourage them to participate. It’s the American way.

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  6. Jenny says:

    In our free market society, people can choose whether or not to shop at any particular store. The volume of shoppers at Walmart shows that people like it. Their merchandise, like at almost all other stores, largely comes from China. What’s the difference? And they pay about the same as other stores, mostly entry level jobs, like other retailers. I believe that Walmart should have the right to expand their store and sell groceries. The people against it have a very different idea of what should and shouldn’t be permitted.

    Dennis Rosatti, Michael Allen’s successor, is the new head of the ADC and Sonoma County Conservation Action. His recent Close to Home article in the PD outlines the social engineering agenda of both of his groups that have now campaigned at every single house and business in Rohnert Park to defeat the Walmart expansion. I wonder who paid for them to do the canvassing. Is it the same people that paid the ADC to campaign against the Lowe’s store? Who are these people? What is the real agenda? Their Smartgrowth agenda in the United States actually comes from an international program from the United Nations. I got some info from another article on watch sonoma and I Googled United Nations Agenda 21 Sustainable Development. This U.N. agenda is nearly identical to the agenda being pushed by the ADC and Sonoma County Conservation Action.

    Pressure from these and other local non-governmental groups connected to U.N. Agenda 21 are attempting to control development in Sonoma County. Shouldn’t that be left up to our elected officials? Our elected officials should not be unduly influenced by these lobbyists that often do not represent the views of most of the people living here. It’s always the same problem of a few special interest groups that are often paid to lobby for a particular person or business. I want to get some information about where the ADC and Sonoma County Conservation Action get their funding so we can know who is benefitting.

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  7. it will happen says:

    This expansion will be approved, because there simply aren’t any reasons for denial that have any legal standing. The feel-good fluff peddled by roaming know-it-alls like Ben Boyce and the ADC (stick to your own towns; no one invited you here) won’t stand up in any court of law. People of RP, we should have faith that our Council won’t be taken in by these peddlers of paranoia.

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  8. thomas says:

    Walmart will bring lower prices. It will also drive wages lower. In addition they have a lot of product made in china and other extremely low wage countries. I think if we aren’t careful we are going to save our way out of our own jobs. I’m a strong believer in buying from local businesses and buying as much as possible that is made in the U.S. The prices might be a bit higher, but then that extra money goes to paying people more money. That ultimate comes full circle and helps every one of us.

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  9. RPMOM says:

    It was PETRINI’s….Pacific market in RP didn’t put any mom & pops out of business when they came to town. They bought the old Roger Wilco, another family owned business. There are no shortage or resumes coming through the doors at Wal mart because their retnetion rate is rate is so bad! They are continually having to hire. In this economy a bad job is better than no job. But, if Wal mart expands it will replace well paying jobs with poorly paying job AND people that are already employed, making decent wages will be put in jeopardy. Why is it OK to fascilitate the loss of 100-200 currently good paying jobs for 85 lousy paying jobs? The only “agenda” is to maintain the quality of life we current have in RP. We live here because of the local schools, parks, neighbothood shops and local businesses with friendly small town atmosphere. If we wanted our money to go to Arkansa, we’d have moved there. Support local business and keep our money circulating in our town – not shipped off to Arkansa to add to the already huge coffers of the Wal Mart hierarchy…you know the “Associates” get diddly. It’s the management that reaps the rewards. And by the way…what ever happened to the Wal Mart big campaign MADE IN USA??? Seems they used that one to worm their way in and shortly there after dumped it for MADE IN CHINA!!

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  10. Brass Tacks says:

    “The Real Agenda”

    The reason that there is so much heat and ‘sound and fury’ coming off this issue is that we are at a cross-roads in Sonoma County. Money is not just talking, it’s shouting.

    We are at the outer edge of an inexorable wave of development pressure that is emanating from the Bay Area core population centers, and the choices we make in the next few years will determine the character of the North Bay region in the future.

    We will either succumb to the sprawl development, low road big-box Wal-Mart program, or we will use our resources to shape this development in a way that will create a well-designed, transit-oriented development pattern that incentivizes high road economic development with good jobs that pay a living wage, and affordable housing near the work. Those are the choices.

    We already know what the old model looks like. Just go into any city that has been over-run by block after block of strip malls, and soul-dead big-box stores. We can do better. Thankfully there are groups like the ADC that seek to represent the public interest in creating the future of the county.

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  11. Andy says:

    Yes, keep in mind that “cheaper prices” of Wal Mart are a false value since (as SR Old timer notes correctly) they don’t factor in the hidden costs of our local municipalities paying for health care for Wal MArt employees and subsidizing their huge profits. it also doesn’t factor in the cost to the environment of all those Chinese manufactured poisonous toys whose recall costs us taxpayers and whose injuries to children and the environment cost us all as well. When you add this all up-guess what,? It’s NOT cheaper to shop at Wal mart.

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  12. NOTUTOO says:

    It fries me when people demonize a reply because it’s contrary to their opinion. Now low wages lead to government healthcare subsidies…Not as much as no wages…I thought the liberal “change” healthcare agenda was about ridding us of employer based healthcare. We’re in 11% unemployment country. I don’t see any other businesses stepping up to the plate. We need anything to get people back on their feet and working. There are literally thousands of people that need part time work. It’s grocery store work…Why does it have to be career work with full benefits, healthcare, vacations? Businesses can’t afford union pricing anymore. Isn’t this why we’re in trouble with public employee pensions? Heck, this is the same reasoning that got rid of paperboys…

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  13. sroldtimer says:

    All these people who claim local stores are overpriced and defend places like WalMart just fry me! I put them in a catagory of “too stupid to live”. WalMart DOES pay poorly. They avoid paying any benefits or overtime by using mostly part-time workers. Where do think all these part-timers get their medical care? You and I pay for it at more than TWICE what it would normally cost because they just go to the ER when they need medical care. I wish all you clowns would get your collective heads out of your butts and educate yourselves on how mega-corporations like WalMart operate! Don’t forget to add that ER bill onto that cheap price you got at WalMart!

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  14. NOTUTOO says:

    I shopped at Pacific Market once. It reminded me of the old Patrini’s on 4th in Santa Rosa, overpriced. I wonder how many Mom and Pop’s Pacific Market put under when it came in. Be wary of businesses that use politics to defeat competition. Why is it that the Walmart wages are allegedly low, but there will be no shortage of resumes coming through the door? Everybody has an agenda and this issue is rife with them.

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