As the California unemployment rate continues to stubbornly remain around 10.7 percent, local communities are looking for any opportunity to improve job numbers. One of the companies that continues to announce new job opportunities throughout the state is Walmart, who recently received approval for a new location in Atascadero, as well as other Central Valley locations.
Together, according to statements made by Walmart, these new store openings and expansions represent hundreds of new jobs and millions in new sales tax revenues for communities. At just new two locations in the Sacramento region, Walmart is expecting to hire 155 new employees. Three other Walmart Neighborhood Markets – their grocery store brand – will be opening in the suburbs around Sacramento in the next year. That means another influx of new jobs.
Oftentimes, resistance to building a new or expanded big box retail location can delay projects for months or event years; despite the often-immediate boost to the local job market. In Atascadero, city officials hoped to win twice: once by approving a project that would create an estimated 507 jobs and also by keeping residents dollars in the community, where shopping options were sparse.
In Atascadero, the city spent seven years debating a new Walmart location. After several iterations of the store’s plans, as well as the withdrawal of one of the development partners, the city council voted to approve the new Supercenter in July.
During the debate, the project was vetted, discussed, investigated, reported, subjected to public comment, approved, rejected, appealed, and then affirmed. All the while, city staff and city officials were forced to balance sometimes-adversarial community organizations.
Leading the charge against the project was the group Save Atascadero /Oppose Walmart. They put a ballot initiative forward that would have banned big box stores. The measure resoundingly defeated as 68% of voters cast ‘no’ ballots. By the time the project was approved more than 5,800 residents joined a coalition publicly supporting the project.
Atascadero’s protracted approval of the Walmart project is similar to the story in Lompoc, where the city council approved an expansion after 5 years.
Unfortunately, even as plans were underway to establish a date for breaking ground at the new location, Save Atascadero/ Oppose Walmart was preparing a lawsuit.
The group contends that the city intentionally ignored the will of the public and testimony of experts regarding the CEQA report and EIR.
The issue of both the Walmart Expansion and the new lawsuit were discussed at a city council meeting on Tuesday. There, the council unanimously approved a public statement on the lawsuit and the project in general.
Addressing itself to the accusation that they disregarded information and the public, the council approved the letter that read:
“We understand and respect that the City Council is responsible for discerning the public’s wishes on any municipal project. We also understand and respect that we are required to fulfill, to the letter, the legal requirements associated with such projects. We have taken these obligations seriously and have accomplished both of these tasks and we think the people who are suing Atascadero know it.”
Claims that they didn’t perform their due diligence or shut out the public from the process were also addressed and dispelled:
“Over the last seven years we’ve dedicated thousands of hours of staff time to hold 14 public meetings/hearings on this project,” read the statement. “We’ve been dedicated to providing extensive information and opportunity for comment through the Internet and at City Hall including the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR), partial recirculation of the Draft EIR (PDEIR) and several informational meetings. We remain dedicated to openness and transparency on this and all municipal issues.”
This lawsuit is expected to delay the project by at least a year.
The council ended its letter with a defiant statement of support for the project:
“We are determined to see the Walmart-Annex project through. Clearly it has the support of an overwhelming majority of the people in Atasacadero.”