City Council

Ghost of Walmart haunts year’s last meeting

Somehow, several weeks after the conclusion of one of Chico’s longest-debated land-use decisions, the specter of Walmart has continued to invade discussions among Chico’s city leaders.

Repeated references to the Arkansas-based retailer came up during the City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday (Dec. 15), including several times as the panel discussed a publicly financed low-income-housing development planned for east Chico.

Council members were considering whether to lend an additional $3.1 million of Redevelopment Agency funds for the construction of the 90-unit Parkside Terrace Apartments at Meriam Park. Combined with the city’s first RDA allocation to the developer, the decision had the potential to place the city’s loan commitment at about $10 million.

That didn’t set well will several members of the public.

Local builder Greg Webb took issue with the development’s $200,000-per-unit price tag, saying he could produce turnkey apartments for close to half of that cost. He also suggested the council consider using the money to purchase and improve existing complexes in the city. Chico real estate broker Steve Depa followed him with specifics, recommending that the council spend the money to revitalize Columbus Avenue by purchasing and rehabilitating the street’s rundown complexes.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the city to take advantage of,” he told council members.

Councilwoman Mary Flynn said the city would welcome innovative projects of local builders, noting that the RDA would have $5.3 million remaining after an allocation to the low-income housing project. “Bring it on!” she said.

Michael Reilley, a local insurance agent, was the first person who alluded to the council’s recent denial of Walmart’s expansion. He said the city needed to factor in the housing project’s environmental footprint and asked for the whereabouts of a solar development (none is planned for the complex). He then reminded the panel that, unlike the retailer, the housing project is funded by taxpayer money.

“You get to demand … what the development needs to provide,” he said.

Other comments included criticism that the apartment complex was much too luxurious, because it includes plans for a swimming pool, fitness center, meeting room, and in-unit washers and dryers. Councilman Larry Wahl said he found it “amazing” that taxpayers were being asked to foot the bill for amenities so many of them do without.

Flynn responded to that, too.

“I think that as a community we should be championing these things for people,” she said.

Councilman Jim Walker noted how the council was “vilified” for denying Walmart’s expansion plans, and that part of the contention was based on the loss of construction jobs. He pointed out that people who were in favor of Walmart’s expansion were some of the same folks against the housing project.

The Affordable Housing Development Corp.—a for-profit company—asked for more funding because it has been unable to secure the state financing it expected would complete what was originally a $20 million project, and the less-competitive tax credit financing it is now seeking won’t provide enough money. Meanwhile, the cost to build the facility has fallen by about $2 million.

About two hours into discussion, Councilman Andy Holcombe made a motion to approve the additional allocation. Wahl was the lone dissenter in the vote.

The meeting was the last one of 2009, but it provided insight into what’s to come in the new year. One issue is the city’s financial standing. Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy gave a report detailing the steps taken to alleviate the general fund’s projected $655,000 shortfall. The estimate is based on the first quarter of the fiscal year, which indicated steep loses of sales-tax revenues. To keep the budget balanced, she’s tracking economic trends, including unemployment and foreclosure rates.

And, yes, Walmart popped up in those discussions, too.