Golf while you can

The dawn of a new Wal-Mart nears at Sunset Hills

Photo By Tom Angel

Anyone who has ever played golf knows that it is a ridiculous game. So what if golfers long ago stopped wearing those baggy plaid pants and floppy hats with the puffballs on top—it’s still a pretty silly thing for a grown person to be doing. Chasing a little white ball across a bumpy lawn, trying to get it to fall into a 4-inch hole in the ground—ridiculous. It’s like playing fetch without a dog.

And yet, people love to golf.

On any given day at Sunset Hills Golf Course in Chico, way out in the orchards where The Esplanade meets Garner Lane, you can see all sorts of people whacking, putting, hacking, chipping and driving away, chasing that stupid little ball all over the course and having the time of their lives doing so.

For all its frustrations, golf is a game that demands relaxation. The harder you try to smack the ball, the farther it’ll land from the hole. Yet, if you can manage to empty your mind, keep your head down and breathe, the ball will—once in a while—end up on the green.

Sunset Hills is known as a “pitch-and-putt” course. It’s small enough for a person to play nine holes during a long lunch, yet big enough to present a challenge. Beginners can play a round without completely humiliating themselves, and experts can build self-confidence and work on their short game.

That’s why all types of people play at Sunset Hills. If you don’t count the mini-golf places with their wacky windmills and hordes of junior high kids, pitch-and-putt can be considered the final, fading hope of golf as anything other than a rich man’s sport. It is the working-class alternative to the country club—the blue-collar fairway, the accessible green.

But in the brave, new-and-improved, corporate-feudal state of America, golf is just one of the things working-class people are going to have to give up, especially if they want low, low prices on everything from digital cameras to pineapple juice.

Although the owners of Sunset Hills shied away from talking about their plans for the course, there is ample evidence that within a couple of years it could be razed to make room for what would be Chico’s second Wal-Mart superstore.

Dave and Fran Van Dyke, the owners of Sunset Hills, did not want to talk about the prospect of a Wal-Mart being built there for several reasons. For one, stories that have come out in the past have created the impression that the sale has already gone through, which the Van Dykes say has cut into their business.

“How many people have asked about Wal-Mart? 5,000?” Dave asked Fran while a CN&R reporter was hanging around their office trying to secure an interview. “See, the way golfers work is that, if they think a place is not going to be around, they won’t come back. But we could be here a while. It’s not sold yet.”

That hasn’t stopped Oregon engineering firm PacLand from submitting detailed plans to the city that call for building on the site a 20-acre commercial complex that would sport a 210,000-square-foot store and 1,023 parking stalls. PacLand, a company best known in Northern California for building Wal-Marts, has also expressed its intent to provide a full environmental-impact review, which will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It might seem strange that a company would spend so much money in preparation for developing land it doesn’t even own. (The city has received around $30,000 in application fees for the project so far.) But, as Van Dyke said, “A company like that can write it off just as a business expense. To them, losing $150,000 might be like me losing $150. It’ll hurt but it won’t break me.” Van Dyke confirmed that one potential buyer has secured first rights to the property but would not divulge that buyer’s identity.

The Van Dykes have owned Sunset Hills since 1993, when they bought it from Dave’s parents. It’s been in the Van Dyke family for 26 years and has been owner-operated the entire time. Van Dyke said he has worked six days a week at the course for most of his life, mowing the grass, repairing the facilities and renting out clubs to golfers of all stripes.

Photo By Tom Angel

“I’m the mechanic, the mower, and I do a lot of the book work around here,” Dave said while Fran busily shuffled things around in their cluttered clubhouse office. Dave and Fran hope to retire soon, but the monthly mortgage payment on the course would be more than anny profits they could hope to make if they were to hire out for its operation. As it is, the Van Dykes’ four daughters have been helping out for years. Apparently, running a golf course is not the cash cow many might expect it to be, especially when the course charges only $9 for nine holes of golf.

The Van Dykes are clearly conflicted. They are weary of working and ready to retire, yet they know that will probably mean the golf course they’ve spent so many years fixing up and keeping green will cease to exist. They also feel they’ve been burned by the press—especially the CN&R—in the past and don’t want to see any potential deal fall through just because some nosy newspaper has a penchant for writing stories about how Wal-Mart is ruining the country.

Dave said the golf course has been a big part of Chico life—especially for his family—and it will hurt to see it go. His eyes glassed up a little bit just talking about it.

“If I had my druthers, I’d like to see it stay a golf course, but once it’s sold that won’t be up to me. It could be a Wal-Mart, it could be a golf course, I don’t know. Nothing will happen until next year anyway.”

For now at least the course is still open for business, and according to at least one golfer who has played there regularly for about 10 years, the place has never looked better. But the assumption at the city is that Wal-Mart wants to build there.

“I think that’s a pretty clear assumption, though we’ve been dealing with PacLand,” city Senior Planner Clif Sellers said while on a conference call interview with a CN&R reporter and Community Development Director Tony Baptiste, who added, “But PacLand is the engineer of the Wal-Mart expansion of the existing store, so—whatever that’s worth. The characteristics of the site we’ve seen indicate it’s similar to [plans submitted for supersizing the existing Wal-Mart on Forest Avenue].”

As it sits now, the neighborhood surrounding Sunset Hills is decidedly rural, a quiet patchwork of old farmhouses, sprawling orchards and large, industrial businesses housed in giant steel warehouses. But it won’t look that way for long. According to the city planners, the north side is where almost all of Chico’s growth is expected to occur in coming decades. In 10 years, Sellers said, the area surrounding Sunset Hills will probably look a lot like Southeast Chico in the vicinity of 20th Street and Forest Avenue. Ring any bells? That’s where the current Wal-Mart is—and where it plans to expand into a 200,000-square-foot superstore.

From the city’s perspective, allowing a new Wal-Mart superstore in what is now a rural area is not the issue. Since the plan is to reshape the entire north side anyway, who cares what is already there? Current property owners apparently don’t. At a meeting in June to discuss annexation of the area—the first hurdle for major development—only 10 or 12 out of about 150 property owners even showed up, and none apparently opposed annexation plans.

The issue of annexation is one that has been controversial in other neighborhoods, but for whatever reason—maybe because residential density is low in the area—nobody has shown any real concern in this case. The city is in the process of annexing several pockets of unincorporated Chico in order to shore up tax revenues, extend sewer and emergency services and take the pressure off the perennially broke county. The annexation in north Chico has become a priority for those reasons—and at least partially to please Wal-Mart.

Sellers said there are two main reasons Wal-Mart wants to be within city rather than county limits. “One is that they want to be on sewer, and I think secondly they want to process their application through the city simply because we’re more accustomed to dealing with that type of project and that size of project.”

The county recently passed an ordinance putting size limits and aesthetic standards on so-called “big box” stores like Wal-Mart, but with annexation into the city those standards go out the window. City planners say the county standards are not much different than what the city would impose.

But, aside from the neighborhood and environmental issues, what would hosting two Wal-Mart superstores within a seven-mile radius mean to Chico? John Shannon, first vice president of the Central Labor Council of Butte & Glenn Counties, thinks it would be a disaster for the local economy.

“They’re surrounding the whole county with Wal-Marts and forcing very reputable businesses out,” he said, predicting that, for every superstore that opens, two union-friendly grocery stores will likely close, unable to compete with Wal-Mart’s low prices, made possible by lower employee wages. “[Goods] will be cheaper for a long period of time, but once the other businesses close—bingo!—the prices will go right up. It’s supply and demand.”

Shannon, who is currently suing Wal-Mart over its plans to expand the Forest Avenue store, said he has been painted in the local media as a puppet for organized labor, which sees Wal-Mart as a threat due to its widely known and highly effective opposition to unionized workers. But Shannon insisted he is acting only as a concerned citizen, not a union pawn. (His lawyer confirmed he is not being paid through any union.)

Photo By Tom Angel

“I have not been contacted by any labor organization or been asked to do anything by any labor organization in regards to this issue. The CLC has not given me one nickel, and in fact, they really know nothing about it.”

Shannon said he bases his opposition to Wal-Mart on a wealth of published articles detailing the company’s abuses of labor laws, discriminatory promotion policies against women and the disabled, worker safety violations and harmful effects on local economies.

Many of those violations are detailed in a report created by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, which bluntly states that “Wal-Mart’s success has meant downward pressures on wages and benefits, rampant violations of workers’ rights, and threats to the standard of living in communities around the country. … Such short-sighted profit-making strategies ultimately undermine our economy.”

Studies commissioned by Wal-Mart find a completely opposite conclusion. The company’s Web site trumpets its millions of dollars worth of tax-deductible donations to charities, its hiring of minorities and the disabled and its 2003 ranking in Fortune magazine as the “most admired” corporation in the U.S. Wal-Mart also claims that the money consumers save by shopping at Wal-Mart is a boon to the economy and that, because it hires more employees than any other U.S. corporation, it is creating more jobs than it is displacing.

But even with Wal-Mart spending millions on a public-relations campaign that paints the company as a savior of low-income neighborhoods, there has been enough of a backlash against the company to make city councils and county boards across the country push legislation aimed at curbing Wal-Mart’s seemingly relentless growth. Alameda County has placed severe limits on new big-box construction; the city of Los Angeles recently passed an ordinance requiring an EIR on every new big-box site; and the California Assembly recently passed on to the Senate a bill that would require an economic-impact report on such projects.

But as supervisors in Contra Costa County recently found out, fighting the world’s largest corporation is no easy task. An initiative that would have limited the size of big-box stores there failed at the ballot box, with voters deciding by a margin of 55 to 45 percent that cheap merchandise and less regulation on business trump the concerns of workers and their allies (you know who we mean—the pointy-headed, chicken-little intellectuals and the do-gooder, liberal politicians). It may have also helped that Wal-Mart spent a half-million dollars fighting the initiative.

Shannon said part of the reason for his lawsuit was to raise awareness among what he admits is an unsympathetic and incredulous public.

“Basically people are lazy and they don’t care, [but] they don’t realize the whole issue. If they really knew how it impacted them, then they would be concerned,” he said. “Labor does know how it’s impacting them because it’s forcing people out of great jobs. It’s also hurting the city. … You get a person who’s working for a half-way decent place, he’s going to buy a house. He’s going to buy refrigerators and cars and TVs and etcetera. A person at Wal-Mart, hell, they’re down there trying to get food stamps.”

Shannon’s lawyer, Stockton attorney Brent Jolley, said Wal-Mart appears to be pursuing something like a scorched-earth policy in California.

“It appears they’re trying to saturate the market in order to gobble up other businesses,” he said. “There is a potential for market saturation by Wal-Mart to the point where other businesses are no longer able to operate.” Jolley, who works mostly with land-use and permitting issues, thinks those kinds of retail tactics can create an economic domino effect, especially in cases where stores that anchor shopping centers are affected. “When Wal-Mart opens a superstore and starts selling groceries, it puts tremendous pressure on existing supermarkets. When a supermarket goes dark, those 10,000-square-foot businesses around it go dark.”

The city’s perspective on such claims is unclear. Sellers said there will be a report made on the possible economic effects—both positive and negative—before any decision is made on any new superstore. It is not something that can be addressed at the planning level anyway, he said.

“That’s probably ultimately a political decision, and that’s the kind of decision that will be made [by the City Council],” he said. “The EIR is intended to really provide a lot of information about what the impacts really are, and that will weigh in on the decision.”

The first hurdle to be cleared for the development of north Chico is a decision on annexation, which will be taken up in about nine months. While annexation would possibly speed the planning process, it is really a separate issue than approval of any new developments.

So while the machinations of huge corporations and tax-starved cities grind their way forward, the golfers out at Sunset Hills will continue to work on their back swings and putts. Dave and Fran Van Dyke, bit players in the whole drama, will continue to rent out buckets of balls and sets of clubs to people who are largely unaware that the holes they are presently playing may soon be buried in concrete and recast as the pet food aisle of Chico’s second Wal-Mart superstore.

Do they care? When asked by reporters, some made comments like, "Oh, that would be a shame," and, "Wow, that’s a bummer, man." So maybe they do. But if recent history tells us anything about the future of Sunset Hills, the message is this: Golf while you can, working man. Golf while you can still afford it. Golf on your lunch break while you still have a job to lose. Go to Sunset Hills and play your ridiculous game while the grass is still green and the traps still sandy, because whatever happens, that course, along with the quiet, rural neighborhood it sits in, won’t be around forever.