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Opponents face off in Atascadero

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It is going to be one hell of a meeting. On May 30, Atascadero opponents of Wal-Mart go to battle against tax-hungry city employees and residents passionate for low prices.
 
Two weeks ago, a group of Atascadero homeowners founded Oppose Wal-Mart in response to the recent announcement of a proposed Super Wal-Mart at the intersection of El Camino Real and Del Rio Road. In these brief two weeks, more than 500 citizens have joined the new group.
 
The grass roots organization has mounted a preemptive strike that includes circulating petitions, organizing citizens, and hosting screenings of the anti-Wal-Mart documentary The High Cost of a Low Price. Cindy Sasur, an Oppose Wal-Mart board member, says it is not that they oppose a commercial development. The group’s battle is fueled by what they see as Wal-Mart’s exacerbation of some of society’s most troubling trends, including the negative effects of globalization and the skyrocketing cost of health care.
 
“Wal-Mart’s low wages drive down the prevailing wage in a city,� Sasur says. “Their lack of adequate health care and unethical business practices lower a community’s standard of living. They put Americans out of work by purchasing the bulk of their merchandise from slave wage factories in China.� Atascadero’s group is hardly alone. In recent years, over 280 cities nationwide have taken on Wal-Mart and won by passing ordinances or refusing to make zoning changes.
 
For almost a year, Atascadero’s assistant city manager, Jim Lewis, has courted Wal-Mart while keeping the residents and the city council in the dark, says city councilman George Luna, highlighting the mystery of how this end run was pulled off. “Staff has been beating the pavement to get a box store in,� says Luna. “The development was supposed to be the second phase of the outlet. The Super Wal-Mart is the staff’s idea. I don’t think it’s the way things are supposed to work.  Policy development goes through the council.�
 
Adds Sasur, “This is another example of Wade McKinney [Atascadero’s city manager] limiting choices and manipulating facts, all in an effort to achieve his own goals.�  Numerous calls to Lewis and McKinney have not been returned.
 
The owner and developer of the land is the Rottman Group. Their original plan to build a quaint village style project that would have included 170 homes and condos, along with a retail center, was discarded months ago after the city requested a predominantly commercial development. “The city manager’s office asked us to request a commercial zoning change,� says Keith Mathias, Rottman’s senior vice president of commercial development. “They are looking at ways to increase tax revenue. We are trying to do something positive for the community and don’t want to do something they don’t want. We would make more by just building houses, but the city doesn’t make as much on houses.�
 
Mathias says that in order to attract desirable retail outlets such as Best Buy, the project requires a large base retail store. Possible “anchor� stores include Wal-Mart, Costco, and Lowe’s Home Improvements. “Costco is no longer interested and Lowe’s is looking at opening a store in the Paso Robles area,� Mathias says. “Lowe’s would bring in some of the companies, but not a Best Buy. They will come in only if we bring in Wal-Mart.�
 
But Best Buy spokesperson Jay Musolf told New Times that they do not have a policy of requiring specific anchor stores. “We have not told the builders we will not come in without a Wal-Mart,� Musolf says. “Every situation is different. We would like to be part of the community.�
 
The president and CEO of Costco, Jim Sinegal, says the company is currently focusing on its SLO location and would consider opening an Atascadero store in five to ten years. Sinegal explains a few key differences between Costco and Wal-Mart. “Our average pay is $17 an hour, while I think theirs is around $10 an hour. Our employee turnover rate is below 20 percent and that includes seasonal help. After a year it is less then 6 percent.�  Wal-Mart’s turnover rate is cited in a recent book at more than 50 percent.
 
A UC Berkeley 2004 study shows that when Wal-Mart moves into an area, retail worker’s wages drop around 31 percent. At these low wages many Wal-Mart employees are forced to depend on food stamps and Medicare to make ends meet. The reliance of California Wal-Mart employees on government assistance comes at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $86 million annually, according to the study.
 
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin McCall says, “We have been pretty proactive in working on the health care issue in our company. We have recently changed the original two-year waiting period for part time workers to one-year. As a company, we have to be competitive, otherwise it would be hard to retain employees. At this point our average wage is around $10.50 per hour.�
 
At the May 30 meeting, The Rottman Group, the city council and staff will present residents with three development options that include the original plans for a mixed-use project high in residential units; a commercial project with Lowe’s as its base store; and a retail development with a Super Wal-Mart, along with the expected tax revenue and viability of each project. Over three hundred opponents of Wal-Mart are expected to attend.
 
Perhaps the meeting will also shed some light on the mystery of how staff could have for so long been making such monumental development decisions—which put the city in the position of courting Wal-Mart rather than the other way around—without the knowledge of the staff’s employer, the Atascadero city council. Stay tuned. ∆

Karen Velie can be reached at kvelie@newtimesslo.com

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