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Calexico council upholds decision despite Wal-Mart pressure

February 07, 2001|By RICHARD MONTENEGRO, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Not even the mighty corporate giant Wal-Mart and hundreds of its employees could sway the City Council here Tuesday from approving a "big box" ordinance making its way through City Hall.

The council approved the first reading of the ordinance with a 4-0 vote after much discussion. Calexico City Councilman Gilbert Grijalva was not at the meeting.

Calexico's council chambers and the lobby of City Hall were filled to capacity with hundreds of Wal-Mart employees and local supporters of the Arkansas-based company. At least a dozen people spoke in favor of allowing Wal-Mart the possibility of expanding its operations locally by reconsidering a big box ordinance that would place a limit on the percentage of non-taxable items, or groceries, a retail store of more than 150,000 square feet could house.

While the decision to approve the ordinance didn't sit well with Wal-Mart officials, Calexico City Councilman Victor Carrillo told those crammed into the chamber the decision to approve the ordinance should in no way discourage any expansion of Wal-Mart.


"If you want to triple the size of Wal-Mart you can," he said. "It's not an issue of Wal-Mart's expansion."

He said the issue is limiting the amount of groceries a store more than 150,000 square feet can stock to 7.5 percent of the sales floor.

"Wal-Mart, as far as I know, is not in the grocery business," Carrillo said.

"I believe in fair play. We're here to make decisions that will benefit Calexico in general," he added, referring to the family-owned grocery stores and those the groceries employ that would be protected by such an ordinance.

"This was never about Wal-Mart or another store not being allowed to grow," Carrillo said.

Councilman John Renison said the city should show Wal-Mart it is interested in assisting with any possible expansion by getting together and discussing the issue.

Still, he agreed the city has an obligation to the protect local independent grocers, who proposed the ordinance to the city several months ago.

Renison said the city's concern should be promoting balanced economic growth that will ultimately benefit all merchants setting up shop or already in Calexico.

Calexico Mayor Javier Alatorre said, "I feel very strongly about the free-enterprise concept."

But, he said, "In the past we've made a lot of mistakes in planning for the future. This is a start we've made to try to control the growth of the future."

Council members acknowledged Wal-Mart's many contributions to the community, may of which were outlined by those who spoke on behalf of the store.

However, such acknowledgment did little to ease Calexico Wal-Mart Store Manager Phil Aubrey's mind.

Said Aubrey following the meeting: "We're disappointed with the decision. We feel this is not going to allow us to serve our customers like we feel they want us to."

Oscar Romero, assistant manager of the Calexico Wal-Mart, said the issue should go to a vote. He added the community has expressed it desire for an expanded Wal-Mart.

Aubrey told the council a number of his employees walked the streets of Calexico over the course of a few days soliciting signatures of those who would like to see an expanded Wal-Mart. He said more than 6,000 signatures were collected.

To further elucidate his point that Wal-Mart should be allowed the opportunity to expand, Aubrey asked that his store "associates" stand and make themselves known. Nearly every person seated in chambers rose.

Those speaking in support of Wal-Mart included Calexico resident Bertha Myers, who outlined the numerous Calexico- and Mexicali-based causes to which Wal-Mart donates funds and volunteers, including Valley Orthopedic Clinic, the Camarena Memorial Library and every school in the city.

Calexico resident and 8-year Wal-Mart employee Mary Lou Estrada asked the council to support the store in its future growth "like I support you in my vote," she added.

One Calexico resident, who didn't give her name, said residents and the council shouldn't fear growth. She added when Fed-Mart established in Calexico decades ago, the city fathers and merchants feared the fall of family-owned businesses, none of which occurred, she said.

"There's enough for everyone," the woman said.

Joe Moreno, representing the 17 independent grocers of Calexico, was the only audience member to speak in favor of the ordinance.

He said there is a misconception that the grocers are afraid of competition. He said that is not true; they only have a desire to compete on a "level playing field" and that such an ordinance "protects local merchants who are here; who are pillars of the community and who will survive the ups and down and the economic disasters."

At one point, Carrillo spoke directly to those employees of Wal-Mart gathered in chambers.

"Somewhere there's been the misconception that Wal-Mart will close if we don't allow you to expand," he said, adding such rumors are "creating hysteria."

The Wal-Mart employees immediately left forth moans of disapproval, with several shouting above the din that that wasn't true.

Staff Writer Richard Montenegro can be reached at 337-3453.

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