Nearly 70 percent of Atascadero voters on Nov. 4 rejected Measure D-08, the so-called “Shield Initiative” that would have prevented Wal-Mart from setting up shop in the northern part of the city.
The failure of the measure, paired with the three pro-business candidates elected to the city council, signaled a voter mandate in the city. As former mayor and newly re-elected Councilman Jerry Clay put it, Atascaderans want change.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Clay said. “I hope those who oppose Wal-Mart realize the people have spoken. They turned out to vote in massive numbers, and 70 percent of them want a Wal-Mart. That’s a huge majority. They want to see this project succeed.”
The project, called the Del Rio Shopping Center, has been a hot campaign issue among the six candidates vying for a council seat. Newly elected council members Clay, Bob Kelley and planning commissioner Roberta Fonzi all came out against the measure during a September debate.
The Shield Initiative would have essentially banned superstores like Wal-Mart by limiting the area that businesses could devote to selling non-taxable goods.
Fonzi said the measure also took away the city council’s right to approve or reject development and hampered the city’s ability to compete with neighboring areas for revenue, which Clay said the city desperately needs.
“Atascadero is already operating on its reserves,” he said. “We need the tax revenue and the property revenue from the Del Rio Project. The longer this [economic trouble] goes, the more I don’t see any other light at the end of the tunnel … except Wal-Mart. They can offer jobs and revenue and attract other businesses to the city.”
Bill Watkins, executive director of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Economic Forecast Project, described the city’s revenue problems as a “crisis,” a financial situation that has been further impacted by the March announcement that Atascadero Ford was closing.
“It costs the city a couple million every year because of the Oppose Wal-Mart group delaying the project,” Clay said. “Plus, other cities are getting tax revenue that should stay in town.”
According to Clay, 30 percent of Atascaderans buy their groceries from stores outside the city limits.
“The bottom line is that the people want additional shopping,” Clay said. “They’re sick of driving 20 minutes to pick up groceries. You know, they go to Trader Joe’s in Templeton and if they want to see a film they usually end up driving to Paso [Robles]. And a lot of the time, they buy dinner right before going into the show. We’re losing a lot of revenue to Paso.”
Paso Robles, roughly 15 minutes north of Atascadero, had a Wal-Mart open in the southern part of the city well over a decade ago. Clay said the store is popular with both its employees and its customers and would be a great source for jobs in Atascadero, noting that the super center’s construction would give area construction workers jobs as well.
The new city council is expected to meet in January to discuss the environmental impact report, the next stage in Wal-Mart’s process.
“It’s going to be a long process,” Fonzi said. “We’re looking at heavy-duty impacts. We’re going to examine all the regular impacts, but we’re also going to look at revenue impacts for the rest of the city.”
If Wal-Mart doesn’t encounter any more delays, Fonzi said Atascaderans might be able to expect a superstore to open at the busy El Camino and Del Rio intersection in three to five years.
Clay said this timeline rests largely on the shoulders of Tom Colmar, chairman for the Oppose Wal-Mart group in Atascadero. Although attempts to reach Colmar were unsuccessful, he said in published reports after the rejection of the Shield Initiative that Oppose Wal-Mart was “not going to go away.”
“The results came in,” Fonzi said. “Oppose Wal-Mart should recognize now that the majority of Atascadero wants a superstore. It was a fairly decisive message that additional businesses are required.”
In the past, chains such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster have shown interest in Atascadero, but Fonzi said an anchor store like Wal-Mart needs to be secured before most other businesses will commit to the Del Rio Project. She estimates that within a year of Wal-Mart’s approval, other well-known companies will sign on.
“We’re pretty lucky in that people are still interested in doing business here at all,” Kelley said. “Look at the economy. Even though Mervyns, Linens-N-Things and Circuit City are all closing, there’s still interest in Atascadero.”