Soledad residents are divided about the proposed new Wal-Mart, but the goliath is hard to stop.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Jack Franscioni drives his mustard yellow ’82 Mercedes wagon a whole two blocks through Soledad’s downtown. Franscioni is a lively 85-year-old man with several recently foraged walking sticks in the back of “Old Yeller.” He parks at the end of a fresh-looking roundabout across from Front Street.
Shoppers trickle in and out of several discount stores, the corner hardware store and historic Soledad Pharmacy. The most popular storefront this hot summer afternoon is Lolita’s Ice Cream shop. The dusty downtown strip runs parallel to the Union Pacific railroad tracks and bustling Highway 101.
Franscioni says back when his Swiss cattle-farming grandfather settled here in 1872, Front Street used to form a segment of the highway.
In the 1920s, Front Street’s retail hub was the Soledad Mercantile Company, selling groceries, hardware and clothing.
“That was our original shopping center,” Franscioni recalls. Soledad Pharmacy took the place of the mercantile company in the 1940s. Franscioni later bought the pharmacy, and ran it for 40 years. It’s under different ownership now but still has the neon Soledad Drugs marquee. About six years ago, Franscioni helped start the Oldtown Soledad Beautification Association, in part to ensure economic vitality on Front Street.
While downtown is a bit sleepy and heavy on liquor and dollar stores, locals still go there to pick up prescriptions, bread and milk. But daily shopping is fading, along with Franscioni’s generation. The suburban transplants and farmworker families who live in Soledad are driving nearly 30 miles to Salinas and beyond to shop.
City officials want to give their residents more retail choices– and are hungry to cash in additional sales tax dollars.
If you’ve seen the billboard, “It’s Happening in Soledad,” and wondered– What exactly is happening in Soledad?– there’s a simple answer: Wal-Mart.
The nation’s largest corporation and private employer is knocking on Soledad’s door with a 215,000 square-foot supercenter stocked with discount groceries and general merchandise.
But Wal-Mart– the company eco-liberals love to hate, but many shoppers love for its low prices– would make up roughly half of a huge shopping center on the north side of town.
Soledad Plaza Shopping Center, proposed by Salinas-based developer Creekbridge, could include up to 30 retailers and 10 eateries and would elevate Soledad to a regional big box hub.
As currently proposed, the supercenter would be the largest store in Monterey County– bigger than the Target and Save Mart in Sand City combined. Some Soledad residents may have preferred Target, but residents will certainly shop at Wal-Mart in droves. With stores already in Marina and Salinas, Wal-Mart’s proposed supercenter in Soledad would be its third store in the county.
The issue now is not whether Wal-Mart will come to town, but when and how big it will be.
Bill Shaw, developer of the Soledad Mission Center on the south side of the city, wants Wal-Mart to dramatically scale down its floor space.
Regardless of whether there are modifications, Wal-Mart and the proposed shopping center will quite possibly put family-run stores in downtown and chain stores in Shaw’s shopping center out of business.
The Soledad Plaza Shopping Center will “lead to the closure of one or more existing supermarkets and some of the smaller drug stores in the [South County] Trade Area, and downtown Soledad may lose some stores that function as everyday retail destinations,” says an analysis by Bay Area Economics in the environmental impact report for the project.
Valley Foods and Esperanza Market in Soledad “should be considered at high risk of closure,” the report says. Supermax stores in Greenfield and Gonzales are also at risk of shuttering; Gonzales, Greenfield and King City have downtown pharmacies and small markets that residents frequent during daily errands. The shopping center would offer an alternative cornucopia of off-the-freeway retail. Forty-six acres of prime ag land now nestled between the picturesque Gabilan and Santa Lucia mountains would become another roadside attraction.
Franscioni, for one, finds this prospect appalling.
“I hate to look at Gilroy as an example,” he gripes. “That looks like hell.” While Franscioni says he’s still “on the fence” about the new big box in town, he says the mammoth retailer offers little hope for the downtown he’s worked to nurture. Pointing to the row of Front Street merchants, he says simply: “[Wal-Mart] is going to put all these people out of business.”
Lupe Gonzalez thinks downtown businesses need some competition. On this late summer day, the Soledad housewife is window-shopping on Front Street’s shaded sidewalks with her 13-year-old daughter, Natalie.
“They don’t care about us,” she says of the local merchants. “Everything is too expensive. They put the prices what they want.”
Gonzalez drives to Salinas– sometimes twice a week– to shop. With gas prices at $3.90 a gallon, she is tired of it. “We need [Wal-Mart] because it’s too expensive to go to Salinas to go back forth just to buy diapers,” she says.
Soledad’s April Liedtke also frequently makes the shopping trek to Wal-Mart in Salinas and Gilroy’s supercenter.
“I will take a couple of coolers and go shopping,” Liedtke says as she beats the heat inside her air-conditioned business, Circuit Family Fitness Center. Liedtke moved to Soledad more than four years ago with her husband, a correctional officer at Salinas Valley State Prison. The couple bought a tract home in the Cabernet Valley housing development, one of several South County subdivisions that sprang up during the housing boom.
With an estimated population of 27,905, Soledad has gained 4,890 residents since 2000. This figure includes inmates at the city’s two prisons. Not counting prisoners, Soledad’s population is an estimated 16,350. While no longer one of the state’s fastest growing cities (it actually shrank this year), Soledad’s recent growth spurt fits well with the city’s slogan, “Feel the Momentum.” But Liedtke jokes that the momentum is simply the valley’s pervasive wind.
She likes Soledad’s small-town vibe, but wants better shopping and stores that are open late. “I don’t have time to go to five different stores to get what I need,” she explains.
Liedtke and other residents, including Beverly Willitts, who owns Nielsen’s Trailer Park, circulated a petition collecting more than 2,000 pro Wal-Mart signatures.
An estimated $349 million in annual sales leave the South County region.
“That’s a million bucks a day that drive up to Salinas, drives down to Paso Robles and drives up to Gilroy, that is now going to stay in South County,” says Creekbridge owner Robert Bikle.
Bikle estimates Soledad families spend $1,400 a year on gas to shop outside the area. “This community will get a raise of $7 or $8 million by not having to travel out of town every week,” he says, adding that the shopping center will provide the city more than $1.4 million in annual sales and property tax revenue.
But the retailer was not necessarily Bikle’s first choice: he and the city were in talks with Target for two years. Mayor Richard Ortiz says the city was prepared to give Target $3.5 million in subsidies. But Target pulled out, saying rural South County no longer fit the corporation’s desired educated and urban demographic.
“Honestly, we all wanted Target,” Liedtke adds. “At this point I’ll take Wal-Mart, because that’s all we’re going to get.”
Although critics may not like it, most residents seem supportive. While far from scientific (to put it mildly), 95 percent of city respondents to a survey conducted by Wal-Mart said they would shop at the store.
Soledad won’t be joining California cities like Inglewood and Turlock that fought to keep Wal-Mart from moving in through a ballot measure and big box ordinance, respectively. Instead, Soledad officials like Ortiz are embracing the corporate giant.
“My hope is that it provides our citizens a place to shop rather than having to drive all the way to Salinas,” he says. “It’s going to provide them with service and at the same time the city of Soledad will get some of that revenue.”
But critics say the supercenter will leave vacant storefronts in its wake, as usual.
Shaw is Wal-Mart’s biggest local foe– and its biggest South County competitor. He owns the Mission Center, which includes a Foods Co, Longs Drugs and Starbucks, and says his long-planned, oft-delayed Soledad movie theater and hotel could be in jeopardy depending on Wal-Mart’s size and scope. (He’s also developed Supermax-anchored shopping centers in Gonzales and Greenfield.)
Shaw says South County’s estimated population of 64,000 can’t support a colossal Wal-Mart without abandoning existing grocery stores.
“It takes away the daily traffic from the grocery store and drug stores in downtown Soledad and existing shopping centers in Soledad and South County,” he says. “When those grocery stores close, then most of the other stores close because they don’t have the traffic.” Shaw wants a scaled-back Wal-Mart– say 100,000 square feet, with no more than 5 percent of floor space for groceries.
In addition to retaining Monterey-based Vincent Guarino Public Relations, Shaw hired at least two economists to respond to the findings in the project’s environmental impact report. Their conclusion: Wal-Mart would cut into the sales of Foods Co and Longs and the economic analysis report by Creekbridge-hired Bay Area Economics didn’t consider the urban decay that would ensue if the supermarkets and other retailers were to close. They also argue that BAE analyzed a 150,000-square-foot anchor instead of a 215,000-square-foot superstore. Shaw has requested an independent analysis of Wal-Mart’s economic impacts but says the city has yet to respond.
Ortiz says the city is still determining whether Shaw’s challenges are valid, adding that the developer didn’t bring the concerns forward during the public comment period.
Kevin Loscotoff, Wal-Mart’s spokesman for the Soledad project, says the corporate giant is open to building a smaller store, but only if residents want one. “We are certainly not going to entertain it if it’s for those special interests,” he says, adding that a smaller supercenter would include a full-service supermarket.
So far, the only thing that would be removed from the store is the tire and lube section.
The supercenter will bring approximately 300 jobs to the city. Full-time Wal-Mart hourly workers make an average of $11.33 an hour in California, according to Loscotoff. The state’s minimum wage is $8 an hour. (Wal-Mart officials wouldn’t disclose a starting wage.)
Shaw says Wal-Mart, which is notoriously anti-union, will drive down wages in Soledad. He says Foods Co workers, who are also not unionized, make an average of $20 an hour. To compete with Wal-Mart, Foods Co may have to pay workers less, Shaw says. Wal-Mart and Creekbridge contest Shaw’s comparison and say Wal-Mart’s wages are on par with Foods Co and other supermarkets.
Shaw also helped obtain the input of Kenneth Stone, an economics professor at Iowa State University who has studied Wal-Mart’s impact on businesses in mid-size cities and small towns. Stone, who spoke at a couple of public meetings in Monterey County in early August, says retail sales increase when Wal-Mart arrives, but decline after five years because the store saturates the market.
Loscotoff says Wal-Mart wants to expand its Salinas store to a supercenter, but hasn’t submitted an application yet. (The company also plans to build a superstore in Atascadero.)
Shaw approached the city councils of the South County cities, asking them to consider a big box ordinance that would restrict the size of retailers and their grocery store space. None of the councils signed on.
The only city to raise concerns about the Soledad Wal-Mart was Gonzales. City Manager René Mendez said if Wal-Mart could force Supermax and other stores to close, residents would then have to drive nine miles to Soledad to shop. “We were concerned that the folks shopping in our local grocery stores want to go to super Wal-Mart and all of a sudden [the stores] don’t have as many shoppers, and they close down.”
But even Mendez admits that many Gonzales residents drive to Salinas to shop at Wal-Mart. As Robert Lum can attest, mom-and-pop shops are already having a hard time competing with chain stores.
Lum owns Valley Foods, a neighborhood market with a wide aisle of produce, a deli in the back and 99 cent hamburgers available at the corner grill/taqueria. It’s the type of store where clerks remember your name and your kids’ favorite energy drink. His father built the grocery store in 1977, but sales are down, so Lum plans to give up the business.
He wants to sell the market to someone who can better cater to the city’s large Latino population, which makes up about 87 percent of the city. Lum would sell his store anyway, but still sides with Shaw’s desire not to have a full supermarket inside the Soledad Wal-Mart.
Other downtown property owners want to see a plan to help Oldtown Soledad adapt to competition from the new shopping center. “That’s our main focus– not to keep Wal-Mart out but work to change downtown to be a viable part of this community,” Lum says, adding that struggling Front Street can’t survive with its current retail hodgepodge of discount stores and nonexistent nightlife.
One idea is to leverage the region’s distinguished winemakers by opening tasting rooms and restaurants to attract more tourists. But Lum discounts such upscale business models, since Soledad is an agricultural community whose residents generally don’t have a lot of disposable income.
Lum hopes Soledad may one day attract a large employer, such as Monterey County Superior Court or the county Department of Social and Employment Services.
“We are looking to change the face of downtown. It doesn’t matter if it’s Wal-Mart, or Target, or Kmart or whoever, downtown is going to take a big hit.”
Soledad Variety Store owners Mukhtiar and Balgit Sidhu are bracing for a drop in business. The couple has run the shop for 15 years but say they can’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices. “One time when [our customers] go to Wal-Mart they are not going to come here,” Balgit says.
Mukhtiar summarizes his Wal-Mart opposition simply: “Small town. Big store. No good.”
The Soledad Mission Chamber of Commerce wholeheartedly supports the Wal-Mart project, though. Chamber President Lucy Jensen says the new shopping center will bring more people to Soledad and downtown merchants can capitalize on it if they diversify their business model.
“If they think outside of the box,” Jensen says, “there will be a lot more people interested in helping them. If you sit back and wait, you will go out of business.”
Creekbridge isn’t going to leave downtown completely in the valley’s dust. Bikle hopes a quarter of the 30 businesses at the shopping center will be locally owned. Creekbridge will build bike paths and sidewalks from the shopping center that lead to downtown. There’s also talk of installing signage pointing customers to Oldtown. The project will have half a dozen pedestrian plazas (with windshields) and some restaurants will have outdoor dining.
“What we are trying to do is create that same drive that we want to have downtown– getting people out of their cars, eating outside and spending time outside,” Bikle says, adding that business owners, including Shaw, should work together to harness the regional draw of a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center.
Creekbridge’s project still needs City Council approval. City officials can’t provide a firm public hearing date. But if the city signs off on the development this year, Bikle estimates the Wal-Mart and first phase of the retail plaza could open in late 2009.
Fieldworkers drop into downtown shops to run errands. The afternoon Amtrak train zooms by Soledad.
“It’s right on time, for a change,” Franscioni jokes. Southern Pacific Railroad first laid tracks in Soledad in 1873, back when there were no irrigation systems and grain and dairy farming dominated the valley.
But gone are the days of bucking barley depicted in Of Mice and Men, in which two migrant Okies worked on a ranch outside Soledad. Row crops and wineries make up the main ag industry. Wal-Mart may soon join the ranks as one of the city’s largest employers.
Franscioni walks over to a plaque honoring United Farm Workers union founder Cesar Chavez in the park along Front Street. He says it shows the city’s hypocrisy. “They can’t glamorize Cesar Chavez on Front Street with what he went through and then support a Wal-Mart that fights unions,” Franscioni says.
He’s disturbed by how Wal-Mart treats its employees. In July a Minnesota judge ruled that Wal-Mart broke labor laws 2 million times by forcing employees to work without breaks or pay. Wal-Mart could face up to $2 billion in penalties. (The company is battling more than 80 lawsuits concerning labor violations, according to anti-Wal-Mart website Wal-Mart Watch.)
Jensen and others aren’t bothered by Wal-Mart’s shady reputation as a bullying employer, though.
“Our community needs jobs– period. I don’t think we are in a position to be choosy,” she says.
She adds that many people commute to Salinas and other county cities for work (more than half of Soledad’s workforce commutes) and Wal-Mart will provide part-time jobs for Soledad teenagers.
Franscioni counters that most of the people who work at Wal-Mart will leave because they won’t be making enough money to live here. He says since he’s in his 80s, it really doesn’t make a big difference to him, though. It’s up to the residents who will live next to, drive by or shop at a Wal-Mart to decide.
Franscioni gives a last example before heading back to his old Mercedes. He says a dollar spent at the corner hardware store could end up in the cash registers of a Soledad taqueria, pharmacy, bank or other local businesses. “When you shop in Wal-Mart,” Franscioni says, “that money is in Bentonville, Arkansas, the next morning.”