Walmart wins

Big box set to expand with nod from City Council

As a member of the public told the Chico City Council during its meeting on Tuesday (Nov. 15), Walmart’s proposed expansion needn’t be a divisive, left vs. right issue. And yet, when it came to a decision, the panel split down party lines, voting 4-3 to approve the big-box’s bid to get even bigger.

The proposal for the retail giant’s location on Forest Avenue includes an interior expansion of about 64,500 square feet, including more space for groceries and a deli; 134 additional parking spaces; a pick-up area for customers who order groceries or prescription drugs online; an eight-pump gas station and convenience store; street access improvements; and two parcels for future development.

On Oct. 5, the Chico Planning Commission voted 5-2 to greenlight the project. A couple of weeks later, a group opposing Walmart’s expansion filed an appeal. Brett Jolley, an attorney out of Stockton, delivered it on behalf of Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (CARE), which mounted a successful campaign against Walmart’s plans for a supercenter a decade ago.

On Tuesday, the City Council held a public hearing as its members decided whether to uphold or deny the appeal.

Jolley presented his client’s case against Walmart. He argued that the council couldn’t certify the findings in the environmental impact report (EIR) because it understates the potential negative economic effects on nearby grocery stores such as FoodMaxx and WinCo. Also, the corporation recently has revealed plans to close 200 stores nationwide as sales shift online, diminishing the need for brick-and-mortar locations.

“What happens when this store goes out of business? You don’t want to be stuck with a vacant big box,” Jolley said.

Councilwoman Reanette Fillmer was skeptical. “Just out of curiosity, how many lawsuits against Walmart have you filed, besides this one?” she asked Jolley.

“In my my career, over the last 15 years, I’d estimate probably 10 to 15,” he said.

“And then, you’re from Stockton, not from the city of Chico?” Fillmer followed up.

“That’s correct,” Jolley answered.

Mayor Mark Sorensen jumped in: “And who pays for your efforts?”

The attorney seemed puzzled. “Well,” he said, “different clients pay for my efforts.”

That exchange resurfaced throughout the hearing, including when the council opened the floor for public comment. “The attorney being from Stockton is not an issue, and I don’t know why that came up,” speaker Chris Nelson said. “Our city attorney isn’t local, either.”

Nearly 30 people addressed the dais. Opponents cited the expansion’s potential to increase traffic congestion and air pollution in Chico’s southeast shopping district, the corporation’s poor treatment of employees and its well-documented strategy of putting competing local retailers out of business.

On the other hand, the council heard from elderly and low-income residents who said Walmart is the only place they can afford to shop. As for employment practices, store manager Kim Turner said that 78 percent of Walmart’s employees in Chico are full-time and some enjoy generous salaries and benefits packages.

“If they’re happy working at Walmart, that’s their business,” she said.

Walmart’s corporate representatives had the last word. Philip Serghini, director of public affairs, said the Chico location opened in 1994 and badly needs an upgrade. The bigger store would hire 85 more employees and provide the city with an additional $314,000 in annual sales tax revenue, he said. “We want to give you the Walmart that you deserve.”

It was Councilwoman Tami Ritter’s turn to be skeptical: “Mr. Serghini, where do you live?”

“San Diego,” he replied.

“And how many of these appeals do you do?” she pressed.

“This is part of my full-time job,” Serghini said.

Vice Mayor Sean Morgan made a motion to reject CARE’s appeal, which was seconded by Fillmer.

Sorensen voted yes, but took a moment to reflect on Chico’s years-long Walmart saga. In 2009, he said, the council imposed “arbitrary and capricious demands that never would have been put on anyone else proposing the same project,” he said. “That debacle reverberated through the business community for years. … People really underestimate the damage that did to our ability to attract businesses.”

Morgan’s motion passed, with Ritter and Councilmembers Ann Schwab and Randall Stone dissenting.