Walmart opposition brews
The effort to stop the big-box store’s expansion gears back up
Can Chico handle a supersized Walmart on Forest Avenue? And do the big box’s plans and the project’s potential for added jobs and sales tax outweigh the increased traffic and probability of nearby stores closing their doors in its wake?
Those are just two questions that the residents of Chico, not to mention the Planning Commission and City Council, will be asked to weigh over the coming weeks and months. Walmart returned to the city with new expansion plans about a year ago—after being shot down five years prior—and the draft environmental impact report on the project was submitted June 17. Aug. 1 is the deadline for public comment.
A group opposed to the expansion has formed and, mostly via social media at the moment, is gathering support via Facebook and change.org. As of press time, more than 650 people had signed an online petition to “Stop Chico Walmart Expansion.” Chicoan Roger Beadle, who recently agreed to take on a leadership role in the effort, said he’d do everything in his power to educate local residents about the negative effect Walmart’s plans will have on the city.
“Education has to happen within the community,” Beadle said by phone. “This will not create jobs—it will have a negative impact on employment. And it will not increase taxes.”
To put the issue in context, over a decade ago, Walmart came to the city of Chico with a proposal to not only expand the current store on Forest Avenue into a supercenter but also to build a second supercenter on the north end of town, about 7 miles away. Five years, stacks of petitions and dozens of packed meetings later, the big box abandoned plans for the north store. A year later, in 2009, the Forest Avenue supercenter was put on hold. That was after both the Planning Commission and City Council rejected the EIR, saying it didn’t adequately consider negative impacts or mitigation measures.
Last year, Walmart returned with a new expansion plan. Instead of adding over 100,000 square feet to the existing store, most of it—82,000 square feet—being grocery, it would increase the current footprint by 66,500 square feet. That would include increased grocery space as well as a drive-thru pharmacy and retail/grocery pickup zone. But that’s not all. The new proposal also includes growing onto the vacant lot between Walmart and Wittmeier Auto Center and the construction of two separate buildings for retail and/or restaurants as well as an eight-pump gas station with a kiosk. That means the net new sales space would be 120,000 square feet.
“FoodMaxx will probably close …” Beadle said, recalling one of the probable outcomes outlined in the previous expansion’s EIR. This time around, the EIR says it’s likely that one nearby grocery will close, but that’s not considered a significant impact. “I also see that they’re going to put in a gas station. So, the Sinclair [gas station] right there on the corner would likely go away. They’re going to put in a strip mall, with restaurants and such—that’s going to impact other small businesses.
“I’m sick of Walmart coming in and strong-arming small communities.”
Beadle’s concerns mostly echo those of years past, when the most significant impacts were found to be increased traffic and the potential for urban decay. The current EIR does take into consideration the proposed Walmart in Paradise, but says that will not significantly impact an expanded Chico store.
The EIR points to only one significant unavoidable impact, which is based on increased trips on Highway 99 between East 20th Street and Highway 32. However, it also suggests several areas of possible contention, which include air quality, aesthetics, noise, biological resources and urban decay.
“The whole thing just doesn’t feel right,” Beadle summarized. “A lot of people don’t see it—they like the convenience. But I think the Waltons have enough money. We’ll be paying the price, in the long haul, for having Walmart here.”