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Teachers protest Klentschy award

March 29, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Residents here complained to city leaders and local merchants about a phone survey conducted on behalf of the Calexico Wal-Mart that asks, among other questions, "How do you feel about Joe Moreno?"

Moreno is the general manager of Super Shopping-Apple Market in downtown Calexico and is one of a group that pushed for the "big box" ordinance approved by the Calexico City Council earlier this year. Moreno has been outspoken about the possibility of a Wal-Mart expansion.

The "big box" ordinance, approved by the City Council on Jan. 16, specifies that a retail store larger than 150,000 square feet that sells non-taxable items such as food can only devote 7.5 percent of its floor space to non-taxable items.

The Calexico Wal-Mart, 119,000 square feet, would like to expand sometime in the future into a Super Wal-Mart to sell more groceries but can't now because of the ordinance.

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For two months Wal-Mart circulated a petition and gathered more than 1,700 signatures supporting a voter referendum to overturn the ordinance.

On Tuesday the City Council will vote whether to rescind the ordinance it passed by a unanimous vote or conduct a special election to let voters decide.

A special election would cost the city $20,000, according to City Clerk Lourdes Cordova.

Councilman John Renison expects the vote could be 3-2 "either way."

Thursday morning he said the issue has been misconstrued as a "Wal-Mart issue" but it is really a growth issue.

"The way I read the people, they don't want the City Council to take a stance against big stores."

He said the most democratic choice might be to let the "votes prevail."

Phil Aubry, manager of the Calexico Wal-Mart, explained the reason for the phone survey, "We will not expand without the support of the customers.

"If we get a bad survey we will say, ‘We're done,' " he said.

"Why force the city to pay $20,000 if we don't have the support of the people?"

The survey was commissioned by the Bentonville, Ark., headquarters of the national chain, Aubry said.

Concerning using Moreno's name, Aubry said he sent the head office a list of questions and included Moreno's name because he was one of the leaders of the efforts to halt the potential Wal-Mart expansion.

"If people are going to listen to every word he says, we are going to back off," Aubry said.

Moreno said expressing his opinion about Wal-Mart does not justify being personally mentioned in a phone survey.

"Several of my loyal customers approached me after this past weekend and told me they were asked about me in a phone survey," Moreno said.

On Tuesday, Moreno called Aubry.

"I told him to stop using my name. I don't appreciate Wal-Mart questioning my character when I am not a public figure," Moreno said.

That night Moreno's father, Frank Moreno, got a call.

After answering some questions about how he felt about a Wal-Mart expansion, a voice from Texas asked Frank how he felt about Joe Moreno.

"He said he was proud of his son," Joe said.

A similar controversy over a Wal-Mart expansion was recently settled in Yuma when the Wal-Mart there expanded from 110,000 square feet into a Super Wal-Mart of 245,000 square feet.

For months a citizens group and a chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers from Phoenix lobbied the Yuma City Council to halt the expansion.

The City Council, with the support of the Yuma Chamber of Commerce, voted 5-0 to approve the expansion.

The situation in Yuma was different than Calexico. In Yuma the Wal-Mart needed permission to change its zoning permit. In Calexico no rezoning would be necessary for the expansion.

Jodie Sanders, manager of the Yuma Super Wal-Mart, said that "Big Box" ordinances are mainly a California phenomenon.

"Wal-Mart hasn't faced similar ordinances when expanding anywhere but California," he said.

The Super Wal-Mart has been open since March 14 and has been a huge success, Sanders said.

"We've made the store more comfortable to shop in, added all of our grocery aisles and basically given the customer more space," he said.

One person who won't be taking advantage of the added space is Bonnie O'Neill. She headed up a citizens group in Yuma called No More Abandoned Stores.

"Yes, I fought Wal-Mart! I'd fight it again," she said Wednesday.

She offered a warning to the residents of Calexico.

"See what you've got and what you are in danger of losing," O'Neill said.

She added: "Wal-Mart always talks about low prices, but what happens when those low prices drive other stores out of business?

"What's going to happen when they are the only game in town?"

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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