The Rohnert Park Planning Commission voted Thursday night to approve a controversial plan by Wal-Mart to expand its store on Redwood Drive by 35,000 square feet, adding a grocery to the existing outlet.
“Legally, I think Wal-Mart has a right to expand, and I think it will be good for our town,” Planning Commission Chairman Gerard Giudice said before the vote was held.
About 35 people voiced their views during the public comment portion of the meeting, held to consider whether to recommend the proposal to the City Council. The expansion would create the North Bay’s first supercenter, a 172,000-square-foot store that would include a full grocery store along with the electronics, clothes, housewares and other items offered by the large retailer.
A little more than half of the speakers urged the commission to reject the proposal, which has been on hold since it was first approved by the City Council four years ago. Opponents cited environmental and labor issues among the reasons to reject the proposal, which would turn the store into a space large enough to encompass three football fields. The opponents included representatives from the Sierra Club, Jobs for Justice and other local community groups.
“That’s not what we want in Rohnert Park, the friendly city,” said longtime resident Nancy Atwell, referring to the city’s motto.
But the tenor of the meeting seemed to change markedly after the first 15 or so speakers when several people stood up to say they were for the expansion. They included about a dozen Wal-Mart employees, some clad in the familiar store-logo polo shirts and calling themselves “associates” in the jargon of the retailer.
Many said they had not planned to speak but did so to counter the claims by opponents.
One employee, Chris Simmons, who came up to the podium with his young daughter, echoed comments by other employees who said without Wal-Mart, his family would have faced difficult circumstances.
“I’m proud of working for Wal-Mart,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, we would have been in a bad situation.”
Employees who attended the meeting said they volunteered to appear and weren’t told what to say.
“I didn’t need Wal-Mart, I chose Wal-Mart,” said Greg Monroe, who said he was a former military service member and an employee of the Rohnert Park store.
It was a meeting that stood in contrast to a process that at times has been contentious as one of the most disputed projects in Rohnert Park history. The proposal has pitted local labor advocates and environmentalists against proponents of a commercial project in a city that has largely been friendly to big business.
After the City Council approved the retail giant’s proposal four years ago, activists which included Sierra Club, sued and won a partial victory in 2011 that sent the project’s environmental review back to the drawing board.
Opponents of the project spoke fervently at times Thursday, calling out what they said were Wal-Mart’s bad business practices from reputedly paying low wages to undercutting local merchants. Activists have successfully fought off Wal-Mart projects in Santa Rosa and Petaluma on those grounds.
But on Thursday night, they were met with equal passion by the employees and other supporters, including Kelly Scullion, the director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.