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No love lost for big box stores

Push to repeal city ordinance fails to rally support

POSTED October 22, 2010 10:38 p.m.

A council-backed initiative to reconsider allowing discount superstores in Turlock had no supporters at a special Planning Commission public hearing Thursday evening.

The public hearing stretched on for about 45 minutes and 10 speakers, all opposed to reopening the issue of allowing large discount stores with sizable integrated grocery sections, like Super Targets and Wal-Mart Supercenters. Eventually, Planning Commission Chair Mike Brem asked for a show of hands from the audience.

“How many people are in favor of continuing to explore the big box question,” Brem asked.

Not a single hand was raised.

“And how many are opposed to it?” Brem continued.

Every hand in the audience went up, accompanied by nervous laughter and sighs of relief from the gallery.

The ban on big-box stores greater than 100,000 sq. ft., with more than 5 percent of their square footage devoted to non-taxable merchandise like groceries and pharmaceuticals, has been in place for six years. Turlock spent more than $400,000 enacting that ban, based on rationale that the large retailers could actually harm the local economy and increase blight by driving competitors out of business. Turlock also took issue with the increased traffic and pollution that superstore visitors may create. 

“In my opinion it was decided at that time for all the right reasons,” said Brem, who was on the Planning Commission when the initial decision was made.

The cash-strapped City of Turlock – which faces a $2.7 million deficit in the recently approved budget –recently agreed to reexamine allowing big box stores in hopes of attracting additional tax revenue, at the suggestion of outgoing Councilman Ted Howze.

“I have heard from a lot of people in the community who are for a big box store, especially now with the economy,” Howze told the Journal in June. “We need the sales tax dollars and the good entry-level jobs. It’s a crying shame that our citizens are driving out of town to do their shopping and we are losing those tax dollars.”

Those supporters Howze spoke with did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

The only speaker even marginally in favor of allowing big box stores was Turlock City Council Candidate David “DJ” Fransen, who said he was opposed to the ban because he believes it displays favoritism to certain types of businesses. But Fransen said he did not want to reverse the ban, because of the hard work Turlock did to adopt it in the first place.

Other speakers were unequivocally opposed to the ban, including Steven Filling, a professor of accounting at California State University, Stanislaus. He questioned how much additional tax revenue a discount superstore could bring to Turlock.

“From my own rather banal accountant’s perspective I think we’re looking at a zero sum game,” Filling said. “Unless we postulate there are a lot of people in this area that have a lot of money they’re not spending.”

Filling warned the Planning Commission about the possibility of a Wal-Mart vacating its current store to inhabit a new Supercenter, referencing his time in Baton Rouge, La., where a four-mile stretch of road is home to three vacant Wal-Mart stores. He went on to take issue with traffic patterns, questioning the wisdom of placing additional cars on already-crowded roads.

Filling and other speakers also cautioned Planning Commissioners of phone surveys being conducted which ask leading questions regarding discount superstores, such as “Wouldn’t you like to buy things more cheaply?” The speakers suggested that Commissioners carefully consider any survey results they receive.

 Janet Smith said Turlock would be better off bringing in new types of stores to attract additional tax revenue, such as Swedish furniture giant Ikea. Smith said such a store could draw people from as far away as Fresno.

Sergio Alverez, who comes from a town less than 1/3 of size of Turlock, said that when a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in his hometown it destroyed local businesses.  He wore a sticker reading, “Not in my neighborhood.”

“And what does that mean?” Brem asked

“I don’t want Wal-Mart here,” Alvarez said.

The Planning Commission took no action at the Thursday hearing, which was scheduled only to receive public comment. The Commission will decide how to move forward with the discount superstore ban at their regularly scheduled 7 p.m. Nov. 4 meeting, which will be held in the Yosemite Room of Turlock City Hall, 156 S. Broadway.

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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