Thursday, March 19, 2009
After delivering an uppercut to Wal-Mart last week by preempting the big box peddler from building a supercenter, the Salinas City Council waits for the corporation’s counterpunch: A referendum to repeal the council’s ordinance.
Signature gatherers are stationed in front of Wal-Mart’s Westridge store next to a sign that reads, “Don’t let the City Council take away your freedom of choice.” The petitioners declined to comment and Wal-Mart could not be reached about the referendum by the Weekly’s deadline. But it appears Wal-Mart is paying the petitioners and will likely bankroll the campaign to overturn the council’s vote.
The ordinance restricts retailers with 90,000 or more square feet from dedicating more than 5 percent of their floor space to non-taxable grocery items.
Wal-Mart had planned to open a new store with a sizable grocery section in north Salinas’ Harden Ranch shopping center and remodel its existing Westridge store to include more discount supermarket items. Now Wal-Mart can’t go either route.
“We are going back and looking at all our options,” Wal-Mart spokesman Aaron Rios says. Those options include opening a regular-size store or selling back the old Home Depot site in Harden Ranch, he adds.
After the first public hearing on the ordinance, which pitted unionized supermarket employees against Salinas business leaders, Rios reportedly threatened to close the company’s Westridge store if the council passed the ordinance. That pissed off Councilwoman Jyl Lutes.
“[Wal-Mart] has been less than honest, disingenuous and mean in this whole experience,” she says. “They’ve threatened people. They’ve threatened to pull out their other store… They acted like schoolyard bullies.”
Lutes proposed the ordinance because of concerns that the discount retailer would put supermarkets like Safeway, FoodMaxx and Fiesta Foods out of business. The elected officials adopted Lutes’ ordinance last week in a 5-2 decision, with Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue and Councilwoman Janet Barnes voting against the new law (see Local Spin, pg. 17).
Rios counters that the council denied local consumers’ desire for more low-priced shopping in the midst of recession. “Our customers are looking to us to help them maximize their dollar,” he says.
Despite previous threats, Rios says Wal-Mart plans to keep its busy Salinas store open.
Wal-Mart may have to settle for a supercenter in Soledad, where elected officials are friendlier to the retailer – although that long-delayed project is also going to have to dodge several blows.
Organized labor and LandWatch have been pushing the city to kick the proposed 215,000-square-foot superstore to the curb. “Soledad is right in the heart of South County,” says Cesar Lara, executive director of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council. “[Soledad’s] super Wal-Mart will not just devastate their downtown, but it will devastate Gonzales, Greenfield and King City.”
Robert Bikle, owner of Creekbridge, the Soledad shopping center’s developer, admits it won’t be easy for downtown drug stores and grocery stores to compete with Wal-Mart. “Those people will go away and a better, new and appropriate use will come in,” Bikle says. “But that’s business.”
Bikle says the city’s consultant is addressing comments on the project’s environmental impact report – with the expectation that Wal-Mart opponents will sue. A public hearing on the center could be four to six months away.