By MARTIN J. BENNETT
The Rohnert Park Planning Commission unanimously denied a Wal-Mart proposal to enlarge its existing discount store into a supercenter that sells both groceries and general merchandise. Wal-Mart has appealed the decision to the City Council.
The economic and environmental impacts of a supercenter are countywide, extending far beyond the city of Rohnert Park. All county residents should be concerned about this proposal. The controversy raises fundamental questions about future growth and the necessity for proactive city and regional planning to promote equitable and sustainable development.
Development in the county is inevitable. According to the Association of Bay Area Governments, the population of Sonoma County will increase by 23 percent over the next 20 years. In 2008, voters approved a landmark initiative to meet this challenge, creating the two-county SMART train that will run on tracks adjacent to Highway 101 from Cloverdale to Larkspur. The build-out of the train system provides the opportunity for city-centered “transit-oriented development” (TOD) around the 14 SMART train stations that could accommodate 90 percent of the projected population growth.
TOD is densely built, mixed-use development within one-half mile of transit stations, accessible by bike and foot, and with a variety of retail, office and small businesses. Through land-use planning and public funding, municipalities can promote development surrounding transit stations that includes good jobs paying family-supporting wages, affordable housing for all income groups, open space and walkable neighborhoods.
The proposed 170,000 square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter located one-quarter mile from the site of the planned Rohnert Park SMART train station is a direct threat to such careful and appropriate planning.
Labor, environmental and local business organizations opposing the Wal-Mart Supercenter believe it undermines compact and equitable development in Rohnert Park and violates the city’s general plan. The project undercuts transit-oriented development’s efforts to reduce low-wage work, support local business, tackle global warming and lay the foundation for a robust regional economy.
Nearly one-third of the employees in the county are currently “working poor” and do not earn self-sufficiency wages.
According to the Insight Center for Community and Economic Development in 2008, two parents working full-time in Sonoma County in 2008 must each earn $14.90 an hour or $62,940 a year to pay for food, housing, medical care, child care and transportation.
Sonoma State economist Robert Eyler reports that the supercenter will contribute to job quality decline and increase the problem of working poverty.
According to his analysis, the county will lose 105 to 211 jobs — mostly good jobs that pay hourly wages for full-time workers ranging from $17.67 per hour at Pacific Market to $23.36 at Raley’s and Safeway. The Wal-Mart Supercenter will employ 450 workers, and, according to the company, the typical full-time worker at Wal-Mart earns $12.10 an hour.
With regard to global warming, the supercenter will have adverse effects on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.
In order to comply with AB 32, a 2006 state legislative measure, all nine cities and the county have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2015. However, the Eyler report notes, Pacific Market will close if the supercenter is built, and its 8,000 customers will drive a combine 28,400 miles extra each week to shop for groceries.
Further, Stacy Mitchell, author of “Big Box Swindle,” reports that vehicle miles driven per customer will increase because a supercenter draws shoppers from a greater distance than a discount store. Indeed, since Wal-Mart’s rapid expansion in the late 1970s, miles traveled per household to shop has skyrocketed by 300 percent, while total household driving increased by 75 percent.
As for local business, there are 60 local suppliers that provide produce and merchandise to Pacific Market, and more than 70 supply Oliver’s in Cotati. Wal-Mart suppliers, on the other hand, are nearly 100 percent national and global firms (and that means increased truck traffic into the county).
The “Go Local” movement has demonstrated that patronizing local businesses ensures that more dollars remain in the community. Studies by Civic Economics demonstrate that locally owned firms produce two to three times more economic activity within the local economy than national chains — including locally retained profits, wages paid to local residents, purchases from local suppliers and contributions to local nonprofits.
The Rohnert Park City Council should uphold the decision of the planning commission, reject the Wal-Mart Supercenter and refocus the city’s planning process to promote sustainable economic development.
Martin J. Bennett teaches American history at Santa Rosa Junior College and serves on the executive board of the North Bay Labor Council. He is also co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County.