Wal-Mart's proposal to add a supermarket to its Rohnert Park store was opposed Thursday by critics who said it offers low wages and few benefits to workers and will have a negative effect on other merchants.
"It's a bad idea that couldn't get worse," said Dawna Gallagher, one of several who spoke at a hearing on the project's draft environmental impact before the city's Planning Commission.
Retail giant Wal-Mart is proposing to supersize its Rohnert Park store by adding a 35,000-square-foot grocery store that could open as early as 2011.
Wal-Mart's low prices could be a boon to shoppers, who in interviews at several Rohnert Park stores this week said that during this recession, the cost of groceries is more important than ever.
Thursday night, however, it was only opponents who spoke during the 45-minute hearing. No representative of Wal-Mart spoke.
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 environmental impact report estimated a Rohnert Park supercenter would generate about an additional $23 million a year in sales, drawing business from existing stores in a trade area in which $263 million was spent on groceries in 2008.
The grocery store would be smaller than the Raley's, Safeway and Food Maxx stores now in Rohnert Park, about the same size as Oliver's Market in Cotati, but larger than most other locally owned stores, such as Pacific Market.
The 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, according to the report.
The consultant said that it would worsen already bad traffic that clogs the freeway and causes backups at traffic lights, which will be significant and unavoidable.
"It would be a greenhouse gas disaster," Gallagher said.
Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition, referenced the work of researchers at the New York University Brennan Center who said Wal-Mart's wages are 26 percent less than other grocery stores and less than half of the workers have health care benefits.
"Wal-Mart will impose substantial costs on this city and county," Bennett said.
Phil Jehly of Rohnert Park, a Raley's employee and union member, said that with six stores already in the area, another grocery store is not needed and would only jeopardize those jobs.
"There is no unmet demand. No extra sales will be made with a new store," Jehly said.
Lisa Maldonado of the North Bay Labor Council said that because the added sales at Wal-Mart would be food, which is not taxable, there is also no extra revenue generated for the city.
"You are taking away food that is sold at locally owned stores, and you have all the extra infrastructure costs," Maldonado said.
The report states that the earliest that construction could begin is early 2011, and that the work could take up to a year.
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 public's 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.