Paradise Walmart still a go

Gateway superstore’s EIR nearing completion

This is an artist’s rendering of the proposed Walmart superstore.

This is an artist’s rendering of the proposed Walmart superstore.

Courtesy of the town of paradise

Just outside the southwest boundary of Paradise sits a plot of land divided by the downhill side of The Skyway. Part overlooks Butte Creek Canyon; part overlooks a massive wooden sign with the message “May you find Paradise to be all the name implies.”

It’s an unremarkable property, unless you know the story behind it. It’s been the focus of a ballot measure and litigation, hopes and consternation. It’s where a retail giant intends to build a superstore and a grassroots group hopes to make a successful stand to protect what it sees as the gateway to Paradise.

For a few years, the tussle had receded into the background. That changed in late July, when a glossy mailer from the Walmart Community Action Network rekindled passions on both sides. “Shop local!” the piece declared. “Walmart has plans to bring savings and local shopping opportunities to Paradise. … Keep your tax dollars local!”

Walmart has returned to the forefront of local conversation—though for town of Paradise staff, proponents and opponents, it never really left. The project has quietly progressed, even when attention turned to Chico and the aborted plan to expand the Forest Avenue supercenter.

“I think from the very beginning, when they had two possible sites in Chico [including a new Walmart north of the city], they were also interested in Paradise,” Town Manager Chuck Rough said, referring to a “triangulation” approach. “They always had Paradise as a different location; it was never a response to what was going on in Chico.”

With a receptive welcome from the Paradise Town Council, and despite the legal challenge from the community group Save Our Gateway, Walmart has moved forward with plans for the property previously owned by developer Fred Katz.

Katz had grand visions of a shopping center, hotel and restaurant complex on the Skyway-split parcel. Walmart was presumed as the anchor tenant. But after Save Our Gateway won a lawsuit filed over environmental impacts, Katz sold the land. It now belongs to Walmart, which is working on a development agreement with the town, even though the property is technically outside of Paradise.

Annexation is in the works. Town Hall and County Center need to work out a tax-sharing arrangement, which Rough explained is a legal requirement before Butte County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) can consider authorizing the boundary change. Both the Town Council and Board of Supervisors would have to approve the sales-tax split.

That, of course, presumes that the Town Council ratifies the development agreement and environmental-impact report (or EIR). Both are working their way through town offices. Rough expects the draft EIR to be ready for public review by the end of the year, and for the town Planning Commission to start holding public hearings by spring.

Preliminarily, Walmart’s plan calls for dividing the property along The Skyway. The town would receive the canyonside portion, Rough said, for a park and, perhaps in the future, the hotel/restaurant site envisioned by Katz. The portion sandwiched by The Skyway would hold a 160,000-square-foot Walmart supercenter designed to meet Paradise’s architectural standards, characterized by Rough as a “Craftsman mountain chalet look.”

Per town policy with all large developments, Walmart paid upfront for the studies required to complete the EIR, including traffic surveys and reports on fiscal/economic impacts (aka “urban blight analysis”). The town collected $503,000 initially, then another $57,000 when consultants recommended more detailed assessments of traffic circulation patterns on the Ridge.

Town Hall hired all the surveyors, analysts and consultants. One criterion: firms that had not done work for Walmart. The town also hired former Chico City Manager Tom Lando as an adviser.

Walmart’s recent mailer, which Rough said was the third in a year, generated some phone calls, though not as many as for previous fliers. “Clearly the overwhelming sentiment we’ve gotten is: ‘What’s taking you so long?’ Particularly in this economy.”

Mike McLaughlin, chairman of Save Our Gateway, also received phone calls. While the mailer signaled to some Paradisians that “Walmart is back,” McLaughlin knew Walmart had never really left, and he’s been preparing for the next round.

“Our perspective is that they are going to have to come up with a flawless—flawless—EIR,” McLaughlin said. “All of the elements you have to deal with on an EIR … each one of them can have a potentially devastating impact on the town. They really have to prove this isn’t going to have the detrimental impact like [Walmart stores have had] on town after town across the United States.”