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There was little consensus during the months-long Walmart debate that’s engulfed San Diego City Hall.
The store was held up for helping poor families and struck down for destroying neighborhood businesses. It was praised for creating jobs and criticized for paying low wages. The City Council, by imposing strict requirements on the stores, wanted more information before approving the stores, some argued. No, it wanted to prevent them from opening in the city altogether, came the retort.
In the end, those questions remained unresolved when the council voted 5-3 to override the mayor’s veto and implement an ordinance that aims to protect neighborhoods by further regulating ultra-large big box retailers in the city.
One thing was clear during Thursday’s City Council meeting: that the way you look at things is influenced by the neighborhood where you live.
For the first half of public comment, one after another resident of economically vibrant San Diego neighborhoods, like Pacific Beach and Mission Valley, said they supported the ordinance, and applauded the council’s efforts to protect small businesses.
Kirk Star said he had lived in a small town before moving to San Diego, and that he had seen a Walmart move in and decimate the local economy, forcing much of the town to shop at Walmart. He didn’t want to see that happen here.
Lorena Gonzalez, director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, said the ordinance would protect good-paying jobs, and protect the city from having to foot the bill when uninsured workers got sick.
And then the tone in council chambers changed sharply as one after another black resident approached the microphone to appeal to the council, painting a drab, disheartening portrait of the dearth of opportunity that exists in one of the city’s most economically struggling districts, the one represented by Councilman Tony Young, and the one they said could most benefit from the arrival of a supercenter like Walmart. They asked the council not to make it harder for the company to move in.
Dominic Littleton told the council he was the father of six children, and that he had lost his union job 3 years ago and been unemployed ever since.
Taesha McCall said she needed a job, and that she thought Walmart would help her community.
Ray Smith, a local pastor, listed off with fiery emotion the dozens of stores, mostly small markets, that operate in District 4. Of the 724 total employees those stores employed, he said, only 17 were African American.
And he responded to criticism from other speakers who said a $15,000 donation from Walmart to a pastors’ group — to buy backpacks for children — amounted to a bribe intended to buy their support and rally their congregants.
“Our children don’t have backpacks,” he said.
Council members were hard-pressed to challenge those claims. They looked on with somber expressions as they came face to face with a cross section of the city’s residents who believe, in spite of the claims by labor unions and small businesses, that a supercenter could help relieve their community’s ills.
Never mind that Councilman Tony Young, their representative, has asked Walmart repeatedly to open a store in his district, without success.
“District 4 is in the crosshairs of this big national fight between labor and Walmart and all these other issues,” Young said. His district’s residents had few options to shop.
But he assured the pastors in the council chamber and their constituents that the ordinance was in fact meant to protect their community and others across the city from only the largest of the big box retailers, larger than 90,000 square feet, and that it did not preclude smaller-sized stores from moving in.
“We’re talking about a huge site that could impact a number of different things in our neighborhood,” he said. “This is an opportunity to protect neighborhoods. I’m challenging not only Walmart but all those other grocery stores to build something in District 4 so we can have a quality of life that many other people have in the city of San Diego.”
When the ordinance takes effect in 30 days, it will require any superstore larger than 90,000 square feet that also sells nontaxable goods like groceries and pharmaceuticals to complete an economic study assessing its impacts on local businesses. Those are the supercenters that go above and beyond the standard-sized Walmarts.
It requires the City Council to deny the store’s permits if the supercenter is expected to have an adverse impact on local businesses, but also gives the council flexibility to decide what that means.