Retail giant Wal-Mart's proposal to supersize its Rohnert Park store could be a boon to shoppers who say the price of groceries is more important than ever in these recessionary times.
"Right now, I am out of work and I am looking for the best deal," said Chris Chagnon of Sebastopol, who was shopping Wednesday at the Safeway store in Rohnert Park. "If they can pull it off, a lot of stores in this area will get a run for their money."
However, Wal-Mart's desire to add a big grocery store to its existing retail outlet could come at the expense of locally owned grocery stores and other chain supermarkets.
"It is not like they will expand and people will start eating more," said Tom Scott, owner of Oliver's Market in Cotati. "It will come out of all of us."
A draft environmental impact report prepared for the Wal-Mart expansion project warns that the upscale Pacific Market, the newest grocery in the area and the closest to Wal-Mart, is the most vulnerable to failure from the effects of the retail behemoth.
Pacific Market officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
The public can comment on the environmental impact report at a Thursday night meeting of the Rohnert Park Planning Commission, which begins at 7 p.m. at City Hall. Public comments will be incorporated into a final report, which will be resubmitted to the Planning Commission and City Council. If approved, it will pave the way for a decision on the project itself.
The report states that the earliest that construction could begin is early 2011, and that the work could take up to a year.
Critics contend Wal-Mart pays lower wages and provides fewer benefits than other grocery stores.
"This is a further step down the low road of economic development, the Wall Street consensus that focuses on low wages and low benefit coverage," said Ben Boyce, president of the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition. "It puts tremendous pressure on the grocery stores in the area that have fair labor practices."
Wal-Mart is proposing adding 35,000 square feet to its Rohnert Park store for a full-size grocery store, making the facility into the only Wal-Mart Supercenter in Sonoma County. It would have 167,000 square feet.
The store opened in 1992 and a second Wal-Mart opened in 2000 in Windsor. The nearest Wal-Mart Supercenter now is in American Canyon in Napa County.
The environmental impact report estimated a Rohnert Park supercenter would generate about an additional $23 million a year in sales, drawing from an area in which $263 million was spent on groceries in 2008.
The grocery store would be smaller than the Safeway now in Rohnert Park but larger than most of the locally-owned stores, such as Pacific Market and Oliver's Market. The current Wal-Mart already stocks many items sold in conventional supermarkets.
The consultant who prepared the report said a larger Wal-Mart would draw most of its grocery shoppers from Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa and generate an additional 11,900 trips to Wal-Mart a week.
Wal-Mart sales would affect most grocery stores in that area, but Pacific Market in Rohnert Park was singled out.
"Given the potential for short-term losses, this store could be at risk of closure in the short term, due to the combination of poor sales and proximity," the report said.