Super Wal-Mart battles commonplace

– Gilroy’s battle over whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be
allowed to open in October 2004 is no isolated incident.
GILROY – Gilroy’s battle over whether a Wal-Mart Supercenter should be allowed to open in October 2004 is no isolated incident.

Contra Costa County, a fast-growing San Francisco suburb of nearly 1 million people, already has banned the Supercenter concept – a precedent Wal-Mart is seeking to overturn at the ballot box. And in Martinez, Council passed a new ordinance forcing large scale retailers to go through a stringent use permit process.

Gilroy’s tussle over the pros and cons of Wal-Mart’s expansion has not evolved as far. City Council rejected, with a tight 4-3 vote, the opportunity to require the nation’s largest retailer to do an economic analysis of its impact on the local economy. Council can still reject the project as it moves along, but citing fairness issues at least some Councilmen aren’t prepared to vote it down.

“Our City Council didn’t really pay attention to that,” said Dina Tasini, an economic development director for the City of Martinez. “Because we’re using the conditional use permit process to OK or reject any projects, there is no equity issue.”

The Gilroy Wal-Mart wants to move from its existing location at Arroyo Circle and into the Pacheco Pass Shopping Center at U.S. 101 and Highway 152. The new store would be a 220,000-square-foot Supercenter that would sell groceries along with the normal array of bargain products.

It has been fought by community activists and labor union leaders who believe the combination of a grocery store inside a retail box store will wipe out east side supermarkets Arteaga’s and PW.

What’s more, Supercenter opponents claim, those supermarkets serve as anchors to smaller businesses that share the strip malls with the grocery stores. If the supermarkets go out of business or do less business, the side stores could meet the same fate.

The Wal-Mart battle for the City of Martinez might have been easier than Gilroy’s will be. In Martinez, there were few lots Wal-Mart could move into so it was trying to expand square footage on its building, which would have taken away parking spaces and increased traffic problems.

At the Pacheco Pass center, there is available space for a large scale store.

California represents the last frontier for Wal-Mart’s Supercenters, which span nearly twice the square footage of a typical Wal-Mart store. Pockets of resistance face Wal-Mart’s plans to open 40 California Supercenters during the next four years.

Wal-Mart first introduced Supercenters in 1998 and now runs 1,258 Supercenters in 43 states. Wal-Mart already operates 134 of its traditional stores in California.

The company spent about $100,000 collecting 40,735 voter signatures to qualify for a referendum seeking to overturn the Contra Costa ban. It need approximately 26,500 valid signatures to force a special election on the issue

Wal-Mart is prepared to spend even more in the campaign leading up to Contra Costa’s still-unscheduled election. The company’s pockets are deep, having generated an $8 billion profit last year on sales of $245 billion.

Wal-Mart’s ballot-box defense of its Supercenters has proven effective in other communities. The company spent $140,000 last year to defeat a measure that would have banned a Supercenter in Calexico. Inglewood repealed a Supercenter ban after Wal-Mart qualified voter referendums to take the issue to the ballot.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.