A bid by Wal-Mart to open what would be Sonoma County's first Supercenter by adding a grocery to its Rohnert Park store was hanging in the balance late Thursday night as opponents and supporters argued their case before the City Council.
"The only way Wal-Mart could conceivably offer any monetary benefit to Rohnert Park would be by cannibalizing the economies of the surrounding communities," Healdsburg resident Robert Neuse said.
Thomas Thunderhorse, a Rohnert Park resident who described himself as a low-income senior, said the council's decision would have political consequences.
"If this council votes for the expansion of Wal-Mart, it will show those people in need that you care for them," he said. "If you vote against it, you will be remembered by them."
As hundreds of people flooded City Hall, the world's biggest retailer called on the council to overturn the planning commission's rejection of its application. Commissioners had expressed concern about the impact on other grocery retailers and said the project would be inconsistent with a section of the city's general plan that calls for encouraging supermarkets to be "close to where people live."
Wal-Mart attorneys on Thursday argued that the commission and opponents were legally in the wrong.
"The law does not require you to be consistent with every aspect of the general plan, it requires you to be in harmony with the general plan," said Miriam Montesinos, a San Francisco attorney representing the Bentonville, Ark.-based company.
"If you interpret those policies the way they are asking you to, basically you would have a mandatory prohibition on new development in Rohnert Park," she said.
Wal-Mart representatives also said that the expansion would allow the store to broaden the low-cost shopping alternative it offers residents of the city and surrounding area.
"We've helped families stretch their dollar by providing access to a wide range of affordable, quality goods," said Angela Stoner, a Wal-Mart spokesman.
Opponents argued that the expansion would, among other ill effects, cause neighborhoods to decay by forcing competing businesses to go under.
"It's going to change the nature of the north part of Rohnert Park, and we don't want it," said Nancy Atwell, a Rohnert Park resident who lives near the Mountain Shadows Shopping Center on Golf Course Drive.
The anchor tenant of that center, Pacific Market -- one of a three-store Sonoma County grocery chain -- is at risk of going out of business if the Wal-Mart expansion goes through, according to the environmental impact report prepared for the project. That, project opponents said, would drive other tenants of the center out of business, too.
"If this happens, Pacific Market will surely close, and it will be like a deck of cards with one after another beginning to close," said Steven King, a nearby resident.
Before the meeting, a 10-piece band played bouncy tunes to rally opponents of the project, and Pacific Market employees offered deli sandwiches for free.
But once the proceedings got under way, the mood turned deadly serious.
Rohnert Park resident Suzanne Dewey said the council should overturn the commission's decision in order to support residents who voted for Measure E -- the half-cent sales tax measure city voters approved in June -- and are struggling to get by in a touch economy.
"Our residents voted to increase our taxes to help Rohnert Park, now we expect our City Council to help our residents gain more purchasing power," she said.