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Our Opinion: Big box redux

March 27, 2001

A showdown is looming between the Calexico City Council and retail superpower Wal-Mart.

At its April 3 meeting, the council will have to decide whether it wants to repeal a "big box" ordinance it enacted some months ago or foot a $20,000 June special election that could achieve the same end.

The Calexico "big box" ordinance, known as such because it affects large retail stores selling both retail goods and groceries, limits stores bigger than 150,000 square feet to 7.5 percent of its floor space for nontaxable goods such as food.

Wal-Mart officials say the ordinance closes the door on any future plans for expansion, which includes the possibility of a Super Wal-Mart and its grocery store component.

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In recent weeks, Calexico Wal-Mart Manager Phil Aubrey has led a charge to gather the 900 necessary signatures of registered Calexico voters to force a special election aimed at repealing the "big box" ordinance.

According to City Clerk Lourdes Cordova, who must verify the signatures, Wal-Mart has gathered 1,784 John Hancocks.

It's nice to live in a country where the citizens, if they don't agree with decisions their representatives have made, can put the issue up for a vote. Democracy affords us this privilege.

Still, we're not sure who this special election would benefit, the citizens or Wal-Mart.

The residents of Calexico elected five educated men to represent their best interests. Based on what they thought would be in the best interest of the community, the council members voted to put the ordinance in place with the intent of protecting the number of small independent grocers that could be crushed by Wal-Mart getting into the food business. Council members also said such an ordinance made for better planning and less sprawl.

Now the huge influence of Wal-Mart has swooped down on City Hall to overturn the council.

Wal-Mart officials may say the signatures gathered represent the will of the community in its search for an expanded store. But the reality of the situation is this referendum won't be a referendum of the people. It to a large degree will be Wal-Mart's self-serving referendum.

Obviously we support democracy and a free market society, but let's be honest. Let's not wrap this issue in the American flag so we can feel all warm and gooey about Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is looking out for Wal-Mart, not the residents of Calexico.

The same could be said, and was, about the City Council's decision to enact the ordinance some months ago, which had a lot to do with incredible pressure from the ad hoc association of Calexico-based grocers who had more than a little pull with some council members.

If the ordinance is repealed, whether through a vote or by the council, and Wal-Mart builds its super store, the residents of Calexico should realize that some smaller stores may go out of business.

We don't think the outlook will be as bleak as the independent grocers would have us believe, but businesses closing because of a bigger Wal-Mart is a reality.

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