Grocer joins CARE in Wal-Mart crusade

UP AGAINST THE WAL[-MART] <br>CARE’s Heather Schlaff and Tiffany Wilhelm gather signatures for a petition against Wal-Mart’s expansion in Chico at a recent Thursday Night Market.

CARE’s Heather Schlaff and Tiffany Wilhelm gather signatures for a petition against Wal-Mart’s expansion in Chico at a recent Thursday Night Market.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Picture this: two Wal-Mart supercenters, seven miles apart. In Chico.

It could happen. It’s been proposed. The retailer wants to expand the existing Wal-Mart on Forest Avenue and also build a new store to the north, off the Esplanade where the Sunset Hills Golf Course now stands.

If Heather Schlaff and CARE—Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy—have anything to do about it, the plans will be stopped in their tracks.

“Wal-Mart gives people choices, and that’s fine,” Schlaff, the CARE coordinator, said over a cup of coffee. “We don’t oppose the current Wal-Mart—but we don’t need another one. Chico, in our opinion, would be over-retailed.”

Schlaff looks like somebody’s sweet but spunky grandma. Her hair is perfectly coifed; she’s well-dressed. And her enthusiasm for CARE and its ambitious plan to block Wal-Mart’s expansion is almost contagious.

“A lot of people’s view is: ‘It’s Wal-Mart, so there’s nothing you can do,’ “ Schlaff said. “But there are success stories [of halting Wal-Mart’s development plans]. It happens all the time.”

CARE has started the wheels of opposition in motion. The organization is gathering signatures at Thursday Night Market and has given petitions to Food Maxx for interested customers and employees to sign.

The petitions are a huge part of CARE’s campaign. Each cardstock piece of paper contains one name and signature, representing one person who is opposed to the development. At the time of publication, the group had gathered about 1,000 cards. The strategy, Schlaff said, is to bring the signature cards in stacks to show the City Council how many Chicoans oppose the two supercenters.

Besides gathering signatures, Schlaff and other CARE volunteers have put up a billboard along Highway 99, north of East Avenue, near the site of the proposed new Wal-Mart. They’ve also set out to inform people at the Thursday Night Market and through their Web site:

If Wal-Mart is given the go-ahead to build two supercenters in Chico, Schlaff said she believes many a local business will be harmed—not to mention the discount grocers that will suddenly have another competitor.

“Our guess is that if a supercenter goes in, it will close one of the discount grocers we already have,” she said, referring to Food Maxx, Costco and WinCo.

Matt Moore, grocery manager at Food Maxx, said the store isn’t happy about a possible Wal-Mart supercenter moving in down the street. In addition to making petitions available, the store has set up a television set that runs the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.

“I think we have a real strong base, but I’m sure people will want to check out the supercenter,” Moore said. “I am confident that we will get any business that we lose back, when the newness [of the supercenter] wears off.”

CARE hopes that won’t become an issue. Other concerns include Wal-Mart’s history of closing up shop and leaving buildings empty for years, and the fact that there are already a number of Wal-Mart stores in the area. Oroville, Red Bluff, Redding and Willows all have regular stores; Marysville, Yuba City, Anderson and Roseville have supercenters. There are also Sam’s Club stores in Yuba City, Roseville and Sacramento.

Kevin Lostocoff, senior manager of public affairs for Wal-Mart, said the area shows a need for two stores in two separate markets, in the south and in the north, which is “lacking retail options.”

“We’ve gotten overwhelming support,” he said, adding that more than 5,000 local residents have signed up to support the store’s expansion. “We’ve been bolstered by the number of customers who shop at our one store now.”

Lostocoff also promised that, if the projects are approved, the buildings will be designed according to local standards and other community stores will be taken into consideration.

What’s next: There are two environmental-impact reports in the works. The first, on the north site, is expected to be finished in the immediate future. When the report is published, there will be a 45-day window for the public to comment to the city Planning Department on the project. Comments will then be reviewed and compiled into a final draft of the report.

The next step brings the report and project before a City Council hearing. Before approving the project, the City Council will have to decide whether to annex the land Wal-Mart proposes to build on.

“We assume that they’ll approve the annexation,” Schlaff said. But at that time, Chicoans can comment to the City Council about putting a Wal-Mart on that land.

The proposed expansion of the current Wal-Mart into a supercenter will only go before the Planning Commission, because the land it’s on is already part of the city. A separate 45-day comment period will be given for this EIR.