At first, there was nothing extraordinary about Wal-Mart’s plans to open a Supercenter in the City of Salinas.

It has become a common practice for stores such as Wal-Mart to become so much above capacity that an expansion is needed. Salinas already has an existing Wal-Mart store that is used beyond its original capacity.

However nobody could have foreseen the political fallout that would ensue when the city council passed a big box ordinance in early 2009 to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a proposed supercenter that sold produce and other nontaxable items.

After passing the Big Box Ordinance, the City of Salinas faced public outcry from citizens, squeezed by tough economic times and wanting consumer choice.

A group known as Salinas Consumers for Choice was successful in qualifying a measure to repeal the ordinance with almost twice the number of signatures needed.

Facing its own financial struggles, the City of Salinas met on June 2 to decide whether or not to repeal the ordinance outright or spend a quarter of a million dollars to place the measure on the ballot.

At the June 2 council meeting, in response to the public outcry against the big box ordinance, the City of Salinas voted instead to repeal the ordinance, with the condition that staff pursue a Conditional Use Permit that would impose heavy fees for any business over 75,000 square feet in size.

In a phone interview with, the City of Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue claimed, “I wasn’t an advocate of the big box ordinance and was pleased it was repealed.”

Although some were happy to see the repeal lifted, businesses from across Salinas are watching the city council with bated breath at the actions it may take against all businesses seeking to expand or relocate to Salinas.

Donohue went on to say, “They hung out the possibility of an alternative ordinance and I am not in favor of that. I am confident the city and Wal-Mart can reach a satisfactory conclusion just doing business the way two people around a table can.

“I just simply believe that this type of ordinance is bad business given the way retail is evolving. I think policy has to be made looking over time and one retailer shouldn’t be. There is no way you can make good policy by singling out one retailer without affecting other retailers.”

When asked why the council repealed the big box ordinance, Salinas City Councilmember Tony Barrera simply said, “It’s Wal-Mart.”

He continued to say that the reputation of Wal-Mart affected the council’s decision.

“I have gone to Wal-Mart to observe and it’s packed. Wal-Mart is doing fantastic; [Wal-Mart] has a big consumer base. The fight is with unions and union employees. There is no way they can compete.”

Many have grown accustomed to the typical debate that surrounds any major franchise coming into a community.

The debate surfaces between union workers, environmentalists, “smart growth” advocates, free enterprise capitalists, mom-and-pop shops and big box discount retail.

However this debate has never been as symbolic as it has been in the City of Salinas.

Barrera said, “My issue is to come to a compromise: How much Wal-Mart is willing to help with infrastructure and how can we best benefit out it.

“It is real mixed issue because both sides make good sense.”

The decisions that the council will make concerning Wal-Mart will affect other big box stores that want to make their home in Salinas.

Barrera said he wants Wal-Mart to maximize what they can do for the City of Salinas.

Barrera said about the Conditional Use Permit, “This ordinance would stop other big stores to want to come to Salinas”

The Salinas Valley, often referred to as the salad bowl of the world, supplies over half of all salad greens consumed in the United States and is even the birthplace of “salad in a bag.”

Agribusiness has been responsible for building Salinas’s hospitals, the Salinas Boys and Girls Club, the local YMCA and the largest tourist attraction in the region, The National Steinbeck Center.

As agriculture goes, so goes the City of Salinas.

Local produce sales to Wal-Mart stores across the nation comprise a significant portion of the local economy.

In a letter to the Salinas City Council, on the eve of June 2 vote, Lori Koster, President of the Growers Shippers Association and Vice President of Mann Packing outlined the paradox of the City’s move to prevent Wal-Mart from selling produce in Salinas.

As Koster points out, the local ag economy relies on major grocery retailers such as Wal-Mart to buy locally grown products and sell them throughout the nation and the world.

Furthermore, conditional use permits, such as the one being deliberated by the Salinas City Council would send packing and shipping jobs out of the Salinas Valley to more profitable areas of the state or country.

“Industry has been there for this city time and time again, yet when we ask for your support – you’re not there for us,” read the letter from Koster to the Council.

As many in the community have pointed out, the Salinas Valley has a monopoly on the water, climate and soil quality of the region, but not the packing, shipping and exporting jobs, which make up a large portion of Salinas’ economy.

Koster’s letter went further, “We don’t have to be here in order for us to compete. In fact we are likely better off if we were anywhere but the City of Salinas.”

Barrera said, “The way [Wal-Mart] negotiates with the city. I am impressed with the way they muscle themselves in. We want more business in the city because it will generate revenue.

“The thing is we are all looking for better deals to stretch our dollar.”
Wal-Mart will provide some 300 jobs, Barrera said.

Louis Dettorre can be reached at