Wal-Mart won its five-year battle to expand its Rohnert Park store into a supercenter following a lengthy and passionate hearing Tuesday where supporters and critics painted starkly different portraits of the world’s largest retailer and predictions about the impacts for the community.
The City Council voted 4-1 to deny two appeals of the Planning Commission’s August decision approving the project. Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who cast the lone vote against the project in 2010, was the sole “no” vote again.
“This is not an easy decision. This is not an easy vote,” Mayor Amy Ahanotu said. “But I hope that at the end of the day that our community will come together and will see … that it was the right thing to do.”
The vote came following an at-times carnival atmosphere at City Hall, with a band playing outside and various environmental, labor and social equity groups handing out cookies and literature outlining their opposition to the project.
It was a standing-room-only crowd inside the chambers. Supporters wearing “Wal-Mart Jobs — Growing our economy” stickers touted the company’s low prices, the 85 jobs the project would create, and the positive working environment for employees.
The project proposes to add 35,000 square feet to the existing Redwood Drive building, bringing it to 172,000 square feet, and to make the store open 24-hours a day.
Wal-Mart employee Chris Simmons refuted the notion that the company doesn’t pay or treat its workers well. He said when he lost his job at State Farm Insurance, his job at Wal-Mart allowed him to remain in his home in Rohnert Park and keep his kids in their good schools.
“My wages actually go back into this community,” Simmons told the council.
Retired apple processing plant worker Ruben Overstreet said he has shopped at the Wal-Mart since it opened 23 years ago. He has little patience for the company’s critics, labeling them “sniveling, crying, mental midgets.” Many are academics who can afford to shop at more expensive stores, he said.
Critics, many wearing “Wal-Mart — Not in our community” stickers, argued that the store would put other local grocers out of business and create low-paying jobs that would result in taxpayers bearing the cost through higher use of public assistance programs.
Many opponents worked at those competing grocery stores and asked the council to consider the impact of their decision on the other businesses.
“We understand this country is built around competition,” said Steve Telucci, an employee at the Food Maxx in southwest Santa Rosa. “But for a store to open with minimal nearby residential support will harm stores like ours.”
David Meja, who also works at Food Maxx, said he’s watched for years as Wal-Mart has put the discount grocer out of business in the Las Vegas area. He said he worries that if the supercenter is approved, his store could be next. He likened Wal-Mart to the villainous banker from the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“You guys are looking at Mr. Potter moving in,” Meja said.
But Vice Mayor Gina Belforte said it wasn’t the council’s job to protect local businesses from competition. She noted that there’s a new tire store coming to the city, and while she doesn’t particularly think it’s needed, she’s not going to be asked to vote on it.