Sunday, November 30, 2008

The “Anti-Wal-Mart” Initiative

Last Monday, the City Council placed the “anti-Wal-Mart” initiative on the ballot for next November. Dozens of constituents had asked us to simply adopt the measure instead, but no one on the council made the motion to do so. I made the motion to place the measure on the ballot, and that motion passed 7-0..

Under state law, when an initiative’s proponents deliver enough signatures (in our case about 6,000 valid signatures from registered voters), we must either place it on the ballot or adopt it. I am generally not in favor of simply adopting an initiative. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is the fact that, for us (as for the voters), an initiative is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Even if everyone agrees the measure could be changed or improved, we don’t have that option. If we adopt it, we must adopt it word-for-word as the initiative’s proponents have drafted it.

In the case of this initiative, I think it is important for the voters to have a lively debate over what our community’s goals are and whether this initiative helps us accomplish those goals. As with the VCORD height/view initiative (which will also be on the ballot next November), clarity about the impact of this initiative is very important.

I have not taken a position on this initiative and I have not yet decided whether or not I will take a position on it. However, I do think it’s important that everybody understand what this initiative will and won’t do. Many initiatives have unintended consequences that voters should know about.

This initiative prohibits any retail store of over 100,000 square feet from devoting more than 3% of its merchandise to selling non-taxable merchandise (i.e. groceries). That’s all it does. It does not name Wal-Mart or any other retailer, and it does not call out Victoria Avenue or any other part of town. It does exempt warehouse retailers such as Costco.

So, I think voters will probably want to measure this initiative against what they believe the city’s goal should be. Here are some examples:

If your goal is to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store in Ventura, this initiative will not accomplish that goal.

We have heard from many people who don’t want Wal-Mart in town. But if this initiative passes, Wal-Mart could still open any store of any size in any location in Ventura. The only thing Wal-Mart could not do would be to open a “Superstore” – a store that’s typically 150,000 to 200,000 square feet and also sells groceries. Even if the initiative passes, Wal-Mart – which apparently has a 20-year lease on the old Kmart site on Victoria – could reoccupy that store or build a new store if it does not sell groceries.

If your goal is to prevent Wal-Mart or any other retailer from building a very large store on the Kmart site on Victoria, this initiative will not accomplish that goal either.

We have also heard from many people who fear more traffic on Victoria Avenue because of large retailers. But as I explained above, this initiative would not prevent a regular Wal-Mart or other retail on the Kmart site. Indeed, because of the warehouse store exemption, the initiative would permit a full-blown Costco on the Kmart site.

The City’s new Victoria Corridor code, scheduled to be adopted by the City Council in early 2009, will provide stronger protection than the initiative in this regard. The code will limit the size of any single store to 100,000 square feet, which the initiative does not do.

If your goal is to prevent very large retail stores from also selling groceries, then this is the initiative for you.

We have also heard from many constituents, including unionized supermarket workers and their supporters, who fear that a Wal-Mart Supercenter would undercut Albertsons, Ralphs, and Vons and cause the grocery workers to lose their jobs (which provide much higher pay and better benefits than Wal-Mart jobs). This initiative will make it impossible for Wal-Mart and other large retailers from building very large stores and also selling groceries.

Bear in mind, however, that if passed the initiative might affect other retailers as well as Wal-Mart. For example, the new Target at Pacific View Mall would not be permitted under this initiative. The Target is about 200,000 square feet and devotes about 6% of its square footage to groceries. If the initiative passed, Target would become a “non-conforming use,” meaning it would not be able to expand or remodel unless it conformed with the initiative – presumably by reducing the amount of square footage devoted to groceries. And no other store like it could be built in town, no matter whether it's a Target or anything else.

Clearly, the initiative’s proponents are hoping not only to prohibit a Wal-Mart Supercenter but also to discourage Wal-Mart. If a Supercenter is not permitted, the reasoning goes, perhaps Wal-Mart will not be interested in building any store in Ventura. It’s hard to know whether this will work, since Wal-Mart tends to get its corporate back up when challenged and has been very aggressive in fighting these ordinances throughout California.

And if Wal-Mart does not build a store in Ventura, it’s very possible that the company will build a Supercenter in Oxnard. This might make us feel good about having kept Wal-Mart outside our boundaries, but it will have other effects as well. Ventura residents are likely to patronize the store (apparently 20% of current Oxnard Wal-Mart shoppers are Venturans). This would mean that Ventura retailers would business to Wal-Mart anyway, even though there's no Wal-Mart in Ventura, and the City would lose all of the resulting sales tax to Oxnard.

As I say, I am not sure what position I will take on this initiative, if any. But I hope you can see that there are lots of issues that should be debated fully by the voters next fall.

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