Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is rekindling a controversial plan to expand its Rohnert Park location and create the North Bay’s first so-called supercenter — a retail space big enough to encompass three football fields and offer shoppers a full array of groceries along with the store’s existing selection of consumer goods, ranging from electronics to diapers.
The proposal, on hold since it was first approved by the City Council four years ago, has fueled a long-running standoff with local labor advocates and environmentalists, who won a partial court victory in 2011 that sent the project’s environmental review back to the drawing board.
The lawsuit and heated city hearings years ago made the supercenter project one of the most disputed in Rohnert Park — a Sonoma County city less accustomed to divisive conflicts over land use and big-box chains. Wal-Mart opened the Redwood Drive store in 1992, its first store north of the Golden Gate. The only other Sonoma County Wal-Mart is in Windsor.
The expansion is supported by local customers attracted to the chain’s low prices and advocates of unfettered business, including many Rohnert Park leaders and business owners.
But the campaign by opponents, including groups and individuals based outside the city, reflects a national discussion about Wal-Mart, long a lightning rod for critics of low wages, pricing practices that activists say undercut local merchants and a business model that opponents contend puts a heavy strain on the world’s environment.
Activists have successfully fought off Wal-Mart projects in Santa Rosa and Petaluma on those grounds. Some of the same campaigners are lined up against the Rohnert Park supercenter, making the expansion proposal a key test for the retail giant on what has historically been friendly turf.
“Wal-Mart wouldn’t stand a chance in a place like Sebastopol or Healdsburg,” said Rick Luttmann, a retired Sonoma State University professor and Rohnert Park resident who is against the expansion. “Rohnert Park is pro-business. It seems to be rather apolitical. It seems like people are busy with their own lives and are less politically active than in other places. But there’s still significant opposition to Wal-Mart.”
The Rohnert Park Planning Commission will consider the expansion proposal in a 6 p.m. hearing tonight. Any decision is likely to result in an appeal to the City Council, a repeat of the city’s decision-making process in 2010.
This time around, the business landscape is somewhat different for Wal-Mart. While the retailer seeks to add 35,000 square feet to its 132,000-square-foot Redwood Drive store — where it plans to add a grocery — the company is set to open within the next several months a smaller neighborhood grocery market on the city’s east side.
The approach reflects Wal-Mart’s bid to diversify its business model in the wake of decreasing consumer support for the kind of mega-stores that helped the Arkansas-based retailer build its global empire. The approach also reflects a nimbler Wal-Mart adapting to demand for smaller, more convenient stores and expanded online retail options, said Delia Garcia, a company spokeswoman.
“The two stores serve different customer groups,” she said. “The neighborhood market is part of the strategy but is not the only strategy. There’s a place for the supercenter and for expanding e-commerce.”
The supercenter could offer a significant boost for the city’s sales tax coffers, though officials have yet to say how much, and would help serve Rohnert Park’s growing population, city officials said. The city broke ground this summer on 1,600-home development, the first new homes to be added in Rohnert Park in a quarter century.