A battle between Wal-Mart and its critics is set to resume Thursday in front of the Rohnert Park City Council.
The world's biggest retailer wants to add a 32,000-square-foot grocery to its Rohnert Park store — creating a Supercenter — and is appealing the city Planning Commission's April denial of its application.
Councilmembers have scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday to hear the appeal, a measure of how much interest the issue has generated.
"We are expecting a big crowd, I expect we'll be there for hours," said Councilman Joe Callinan.
The issue has coalesced along lines set down in other Sonoma County confrontations over big-box stores ranging from Lowe's in Santa Rosa to Lucky Supermarkets in Cotati.
Opponents — including county supervisors Mike Kerns and Shirlee Zane, whose districts include Rohnert Park — argue that giant corporations like Wal-Mart fray community identities, depress wages and hurt local economies by swamping smaller employers that may offer better pay and benefits.
Supporters maintain that commercial competition, as the guiding principle of the U.S. economy, creates more and better choices and lower prices for consumers.
It's a conflict often defined by how tough it is to resolve.
Laura Martinez felt it, standing outside the Safeway store on Commerce Boulevard.
It would be unfair, said Martinez, 50, to prohibit Wal-Mart's expansion, "but I worry about stores like this, where my husband works, and about Raley's, where my son works."
Then she added, "But being a consumer also, I know that low prices are important."
Andie McHatton felt it, shopping at Pacific Market, which for Wal-Mart opponents has become a primary symbol of the damage they say the Supercenter would inflict on its competitors and the local economy.
"Affordable groceries are really important to people," said McHatton, 58, adding that Rohnert Park "is really growing and we do have a lot of needs, so I think something like that could be useful."
Still, she said, Wal-Mart's labor practices concern her and "I would really hate to see this store (Pacific Market) go down. So I'm mixed."
The bottom line, Wal-Mart says, is that its grocery would be good for consumers in Rohnert Park and beyond.
"We believe competition is good for all communities, it's good for our customers," said spokeswoman Angela Stoner, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman.
But that competition, said Pacific Market owner Ken Silveira, "would close my store."
The Golf Course Drive store is part of a three-store Sonoma County chain whose employees earn an average of $15.32 an hour plus benefits.
An environmental impact report for the expansion project warned that the market would be most vulnerable to closing due to competition from Wal-Mart. Critics of the project cite that conclusion as an example of "the Wal-Mart effect."
"Their size gives them an outsized effect in terms of how they affect the rest of the labor market," said Ben Boyce, a Sonoma labor activist and a consultant to Silveira in the anti-Supercenter campaign. "I regard them as part of the engine of downward mobility for the American working class."
Opponents also have argued that the expansion would increase traffic and be counter to the development of businesses and housing along the route of the planned SMART commuter train alongside Highway 101.