City Councilman Tony Young has pushed to attract businesses to his district. He’s had to battle public perceptions of District 4 communities as crime-ridden, impoverished and incapable of supporting retail development.
Those are all false perceptions that have kept businesses away, he’s said, and they’ve denied residents opportunities to shop and spend money near their homes. He wants business large and small to come to his district, which includes the city’s southeastern neighborhoods of Encanto, Valencia Park, and the ten neighborhoods surrounding the intersection of Euclid Avenue and Market Street.
So he’s faced recent criticism for supporting an ordinance winding its way through City Hall that would make it harder for big-box retailers like Walmart Supercenters — the ones that also offer groceries in addition to the standard Walmart spectrum — to move into San Diego neighborhoods.
A group of district residents have said those are exactly the types of businesses southeastern San Diego needs.
The criticism has come from one of the area’s largest coalitions of religious leaders, Pastors on Point, whose members have said restrictions on big-box stores may benefit other council districts, but are out of touch with the need that residents of Young’s district have for jobs and places to shop.
“We realize Walmart is not the cure-all,” said Ray Smith, the group’s president and pastor of the United Missionary Baptist Church in the Valencia Park neighborhood. “We understand it may not pay like everyone else pays. But when you’re hungry or on the streets, with no income to feed your family, Walmart is like heaven.”
The prospect of a Walmart entering a community always sets off emotional battles. And in District 4, the pressure’s especially acute for Young. The pastors want the lower prices. Walmart’s opponents say the big chain kills mom and pop stores and doesn’t pay its employees a decent wage.
But the councilman, who’s poised to become the next council president, says the discussion is moot.
Young said he welcomes the arrival of stores like Walmart and Target, but they’ve never shown serious interest in moving into the area. He said he did not believe the ordinance, which would only affect stores larger than 90,000 square feet, would impact his district because there are no properties there large enough to support that size of a store.
“I don’t believe it will impact my district at all,” Young said. “They can build a Walmart tomorrow in my district if they want to. We’ve asked them to do so.”
The City Council approved the ordinance Nov. 16, and Mayor Jerry Sanders plans to veto it Monday. The City Council is expected to override that veto with five votes this week, before Republican Lorie Zapf replaces Democrat Donna Frye on Dec. 6 in District 6.
The ordinance would require big-box retailers to study the impact a new superstore would have on the local economy and neighborhood businesses. It would apply to stores with more than 90,000 square feet of floor space that devoted at least 10 percent of it to the sale of groceries and other nontaxable items, and it would require that the store “not adversely affect the City’s neighborhoods and small businesses.”
Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin said that last provision could effectively ban superstores from the city because the opening of any new store necessarily creates competition and takes business away from nearby retailers, regardless of size.
Young and Councilman Todd Gloria, who introduced the ordinance, said its aim is to protect neighborhood businesses and grocery stores from the pressures of lower prices and lower wages that superstores can afford to offer.
But Young’s critics in southeastern San Diego say the area already has so few businesses to protect, and many out-of-work residents would prefer a low-paying job to no job at all.
“We need businesses, we don’t need them to be so regulated that they can’t locate and thrive,” said George A. McKinney, executive pastor of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ. McKinney and his father, Bishop George D. McKinney, were recently awarded the rights to develop a long-vacant city parcel into a business park featuring a neighborhood grocery store.
“We have probably much higher than the 10 percent unemployment in San Diego. At a time like this to say we’re going to enact an ordinance to restrict businesses that would create jobs is ludicrous,” he said.
Further, Ray Smith said, large businesses fund local nonprofits, something most small businesses in southeastern San Diego cannot afford to do. Earlier this year, Walmart endeared itself to Pastors on Point by giving the group $15,000 to buy school supplies for local churches.
The pressure to oppose the ordinance has forced Young to reconcile his dual roles on the City Council, as a member of the council’s Democratic majority expecting to eke out the five votes needed to override the mayor’s veto, and as the representative of a district he’s long said is in desperate need of economic investment.
“It’s the root of the issue of district politics. Once you carve the city up into districts, who are you responsible to? Your council district or the whole city?” said Brian Trotier, interim president of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., which is in charge of redevelopment in much of Young’s district.
Trotier said it was unclear how the arrival of a big box store would affect redevelopment efforts already underway in the district, including by the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. The nonprofit owns more than 50 acres of land in southeastern San Diego, which it plans to develop in the coming years, hoping to turn the core of the area’s Diamond neighborhoods into a walkable and transit-oriented community supported by small businesses and larger ones alike.
The nonprofit brought the first major grocery store to the area in 2001 — a Food 4 Less — and has tried with limited success to promote small businesses there. It plans to continue developing retail in the years to come.
Chip Buttner, who directs the nonprofit’s development efforts, said he met with Walmart earlier this month, and that the company had expressed interest in identifying a location to expand.
He told the company’s representatives that Jacobs did not own individual property large enough for a superstore, he said.
SEDC’s Trotier said benefits and detriments to local redevelopment efforts could be mixed, as much as the opinions that pervade on the impact of big boxes in lower income communities.
“From a redevelopment perspective, we’re always concerned that the presence of a dominant anything will make it hard to attract redevelopment,” Trotier said. “But big retailers also bring shoppers to a community that wouldn’t be there, who also find out about small businesses.”
“Does it inhibit new small businesses from coming here later or does it give them some indication that there’s already retail trade dollars there? It depends on their niche,” he said.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Mayor Jerry Sanders had vetoed the big box superstore ordinance last week. He planned to veto it Monday. We regret the error.