Big-box gets bad news

Chico City Council gives Walmart plan the boot

The word Walmart won’t echo in Chico City Council chambers for a while.

During a well-attended meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 17), a slim majority of Chico’s elected leaders denied the mega-store’s latest proposal to greatly expand its Forest Avenue store. They also decided the world’s largest retailer would have to wait at least a year before it could come back for a third time at bat.

Tuesday’s meeting was Walmart’s second attempt to convince council members that the benefits of the 82,000-square-foot proposed expansion outweighed the negatives. During a special meeting in late September, council members denied the application to expand the building by a 5-2 vote, but they left the door open by allowing the company to revamp its proposal.

Walmart took the council up on its offer, but the company swung and missed.

“I don’t think they took our resolution seriously,” said Mayor Ann Schwab, rating the new proposal a two on a scale of one to 10.

Conceding that plans for the supercenter include some good energy-saving measures, namely skylights, Schwab appeared especially disappointed that the retailer would not pursue the construction of a solar array. Speaking on behalf of Walmart, spokewoman Angela Stoner explained that the company’s arrays at other stores are part of a pilot project and that installing panels on the store’s roof would preclude the use of the skylights.

But Schwab noted that an array could be assembled elsewhere, including the parking lot (similar to the project at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.). She pointed out that other corporate businesses in Chico, such as Kohl’s and Safeway, have incorporated the use of on-site photovoltaics.

Schwab’s reaction followed about an hour of testimony from community members—19 altogether—fairly evenly divided on the issue. It also followed a short presentation by Stoner that highlighted Walmart’s latest proposal.

Walmart’s concessions included the creation of an employee rideshare program, an additional contribution to the air-pollution mitigation program of the Butte County Air Quality Management District, and a number of pledges to work with agencies such as the Chico One Stop Employment Center, Valley Contractors Exchange and the Chico Chamber of Commerce. “We feel that we’ve stepped up to the plate to provide a project that will greatly benefit the community,” Stoner told the council.

Councilman Larry Wahl was quick to give Walmart props and thank the public and city staffers, who repeatedly have recommended the council approve the project, for their patience and endurance. He also pointed out that the night’s vote was a long time coming.

“No other retailer in the history of Chico has spent as much time and energy to get a simple land-use project approved,” he said of the project, which has been in the works for at least seven years.

During his vigorous support of Walmart, Wahl noted that the proposed expansion lies within an area long planned for further development. He said the supercenter, which would include a grocery component and additional outdoor sales, would provide jobs and benefits for up to 150 people, and bolster the city’s coffers with additional sales-tax revenues.

He appeared especially concerned that denying the application would send a message to other retailers that Chico’s business climate is unfriendly. His opinion echoed remarks presented earlier by Jolene Francis, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce. She was among a couple of speakers who took issue with the higher level of scrutiny she contends has been placed on Walmart compared to other companies.

Wahl quickly made a motion to approve a statement of overriding considerations, but only Councilmembers Jim Walker and Mary Flynn supported it.

Interestingly, in discussing the reason he would not support the application, Councilman Andy Holcombe had few environmental concerns. Instead, he turned to state law—the California Environmental Equality Act—saying that the council has an obligation to balance a variety of issues related to the economic, environmental and social factors. Of those issues, he said the economic analysis is most troubling when it comes to the proposed expansion.

Holcombe said he accepts the expertise of professional economist David Gallo, a Chico State professor who conducted a study that found Walmart supercenters do not provide economic benefits in the form of increased taxable retail sales. He and Councilman Tom Nickell expressed concerns about layoffs at other stores.

That incited bickering between Holcombe and Wahl.

Wahl called Gallo a hypothetical analyst, saying the academic is “not in the business of writing checks.” He also slammed a suggestion by Councilman Scott Gruendl that had asked Walmart to consider contributing $1 million to a program aimed at swapping out polluting wood heaters for environmentally friendly models in low-income households. “For us to try to extort this out of Walmart—if it’s not illegal, it should be,” Wahl said.

Holcombe responded that the economic benefits of a supercenter are just as hypothetical and that the supposed “extortion” is practiced routinely. “It’s called development agreements,” he said.

In his closing discussion, Councilman Gruendl went point by point over several concerns that remain despite Walmart’s new proposal. His ordinarily soft voice boomed over the speaker system. Clearly agitated by the tenor of the night’s proceedings, which included a number of people charging the panel was being classist, he appeared fed up.

“It’s not about discriminating, hating the less fortunate. … It’s about the law and my obligation to follow the law,” said Gruendl, noting he’s endured name calling and threatening phone calls.

In the end, with a 4-3 vote, the council decided not to adopt a statement of overriding conditions permitting the expansion. Joining Wahl in the dissenting votes were Walker and Flynn.