Public weighs in on Walmart

City Council postpones own discussion for a week

The people who came out Tuesday night (Sept. 22) to tell the Chico City Council what they thought of the proposal to expand the Forest Avenue Walmart into a supercenter came prepared.

One supporter, Chico native Lloyd Heidinger, brought in a Sacramento Valley phone book from 1948. Chico’s listings were only 19 pages long, he said. The growth that’s taken place since shows “there wasn’t any wall built around this town.”

Another supporter, James Husband, said he’d bought a can of chili con carne at Walmart and several other stores, and Walmart was the cheapest. The others were “higher than a kite,” he said.

An opponent, Ron Sherman, had studied the EIR and crunched some numbers. The expansion, he said, would add 150 jobs paying an average of $11.50 hourly, but it could cause the loss of as many as 250 jobs paying an average $16.50—an overall reduction to the local payroll of $3.9 million.

And so it went, as more than 40 people spoke pro and con on one of the more controversial proposals in recent Chico history.

This was the second time the council took up the Walmart matter. A week earlier, on Sept. 15, it spent about three hours listening to a staff presentation, as well as comments from Walmart officials and the main opposition group, Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, or CARE. That hearing was continued to Tuesday to allow the 73 people who had signed speaker cards to say their piece.

And, by meeting’s end, it had been continued once again, to Sept. 29.

Those who returned Tuesday were about equally split, and together they offered a fairly complete set of arguments pro and con.

On the pro side, the argument took two main forms. One was that, no matter what one may think of Walmart as a company, the proposal was strictly a land-use issue and should be treated accordingly. The other was that, practically speaking, Walmart offered a service—low prices—that low-income people relied on, and that opposition was based on class bias.

Jolene Francis, president and CEO of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, laid out the first argument. “This is a land-use decision, period,” she said. “It’s not the job of the city to regulate competition.” Doing so would set “a dangerous precedent” indicating that Chico was not committed to fair practices in its handling of business issues. “Either Chico is open for business or it’s not,” she insisted.

Many speakers addressed the importance of low prices in their lives. Robinette Cook, a mother of five, said there seemed to be two tracks for approval in Chico, one for “working families” and another for middle- and upper-class families. With five kids to feed and clothe, she said, she needs an affordable place to shop like Walmart.

Another speaker, Bob Preston, noted that about one-third of Chico’s 90,000 residents are low-income, which means there are some 30,000 people who would support a supercenter.

Those opposed to the expansion also had two principal arguments. One was that the Planning Commission—which earlier voted down the proposal, 5-2—was correct in noting that, because there already are three discount supermarkets in southeast Chico, a fourth isn’t needed.

As Tiffany Wilhelm put it, the new jobs created by the Walmart expansion fail to pay a “liveable wage” but will “cannibalize” the existing union jobs that pay well.

The second main opposition argument was that the expansion would be bad for the environment and have negative impacts on other, local businesses.

Lynne Ballante made both arguments. The expansion would produce no net new jobs and not much in the way of sales tax (since food isn’t taxable) to offset its traffic and air pollution impacts, she said. And she added that, when Walmart came in, it had a definite negative impact on her husband’s bicycle business.

Several pro speakers asked why Walmart was being treated differently than other businesses. They noted that all kinds of proposals—the Costco expansion, new Walgreens stores, the proposed WinCo expansion—sailed on through, but Walmart still didn’t have approval after seven years.

And they said the argument that Walmart would drive out other businesses was a canard. “Walmart didn’t kill McMahan’s,” Sara Randall said. “Safeway and Raley’s are doing fine.”

By the time the last person had spoken, it was 9:15. Councilman Andy Holcombe moved that the hearing be continued again, noting that council members had received about 100 pages of new written material in the last two days. “I’d like time to read and reflect,” he said.

Councilman Larry Wahl wanted to go ahead and vote on the expansion. “We’ve had enough information,” he said. “I can’t believe we’re postponing this again.”

The rest of the council agreed with Holcombe, however, and voted 6-1 to set a special meeting for next Tuesday, Sept. 29, beginning at 6:30 p.m., at which time they will discuss and decide the matter.