Thursday, April 15, 2004
Next week, Salinas may join cities across the United States in taking a step towards banning certain extra-large “big-box” stores. At the April 20 City Council meeting, city officials are slated to discuss a prohibition against huge retailers that sell low-cost groceries.
Last year, a developer floated the idea of building a super-sized grocery and retail store in Salinas. He has since rescinded the proposal. And while no big-box retail store looms on Salinas’ horizon, some councilmembers say they would like to see the city move ahead with a law forbidding such discount stores.
“I would be 100 percent in favor of this,” says Councilmember Jyl Lutes. “I’m hoping we’ll put forward an ordinance that says we don’t want supercenters.”
Other communities have banned stores that are 90,000 square feet or bigger, and that devote more than five percent of space to groceries. This effectively bars Wal-Mart without naming any names.
Critics of “big-box” retail charge that such stores drive neighborhood grocery stores out of business and increase gridlock on city streets and highways.
If enough elected officials agree with Lutes, then the council may ask city staff to prepare a draft ordinance to prohibit big-box grocery stores. A proposed law like this would then be subject to public comment before a final vote by the council.
It doesn’t look like Lutes and Sergio Sanchez—the two concilmembers who are most vocally opposed to the idea—will have the support of fellow Councilwoman Janet Barnes.
“I don’t see a need for it at this time,” she says. “We don’t have an application for a big box in the queue. At this point, it’s a non-issue.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, however, “we’re not going to propose a specific ordinance or restriction,” says Salinas City Attorney Richard Nosky. “It’s basically just a run-down of how other cities have handled it.”
“It” is the behemoth Wal-Mart and its trademark “supercenters,” discount shopping stores the size of six football fields. The huge retailer has said it wants to open 40 supercenters in California.
City officials are quick to point out that they’re not targeting any particular store. “It’s not just Wal-Mart,” insists Sanchez, who asked the city staff to present a report to the council. “We want to see what options Salinas has in regards to limiting grocery outlets of a certain size—say, over 150,000 square feet.”
Just last week, Inglewood, a working-class city in Los Angeles County, rejected Wal-Mart’s bid to build another 200,000-square-foot supercenter. Last month, however, the Gilroy City Council approved plans for one of the first Wal-Mart supercenter stores in northern California.
Wal-Mart supporters say the grocery chain brings new jobs to local communities, and offers consumers inexpensive options on everything from groceries to fashion.
A Wal-Mart associate earns $10 an hour, compared to the average union grocery store worker, who makes about $17.
“These places pay only a little above minimum wage and offer very little or no benefits,” Sanchez says. “It’s not going to provide revenue to the city and it also takes up a lot of land. Once we pave over that land to build a big-box store, it’s out of commission.”
Supercenters also burden cities’ social and medical services, Lutes says. She points to a recent study by Bay Area Economic Forum that found that Wal-Mart’s annual wages and benefits were $21,000 less per average worker than those of local supermarket chains.
“It costs communities a lot of money to accommodate low-wage jobs,” Lutes says. “We have got to provide jobs that pay a livable wage.”