A bid by the world’s largest corporation to bypass uncooperative elected officials and take its aggressive expansion plans to voters failed Tuesday, as Inglewood residents overwhelmingly rejected Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a colossal retail and grocery center without an environmental review or public hearings.
With all votes counted Tuesday evening, 4,575 Inglewood residents had voted in favor of Wal-Mart’s plan, while 7,049 had voted against it.
Wal-Mart hopes to break into California’s grocery business by opening 40 such Supercenters statewide. The one in Inglewood would have been Los Angeles County’s first.
The company had spent more than $1 million on its campaign, and opponents had warned that if the company won, residents throughout California should gird for similar battles.
“What this shows is that Wal-Mart can’t dupe people in this city to sign away their rights,” said Mike Shimpock, a strategist for the campaign against the move. “If they spent $1 million here and lost by this margin, I doubt they’ll try this elsewhere. They’ll have to approach cities as equal partners.”
Thwarted by officials in Inglewood and elsewhere, company strategists decided to take their proposal directly to voters, who the retailer said would be well served by new jobs, tax revenues and low prices.
The expansion encountered fierce opposition from organized labor, which insisted that Wal-Mart’s aggressive business practices and anti-union employment policies would result in lost jobs and depressed wages for millions of workers.
The United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters amassed a seven-figure war chest to fight Wal-Mart’s effort statewide and vigorously lobbied public officials.
State Democratic legislators have introduced bills that would force Wal-Mart to provide health insurance to a wider number of employees and pay for expensive economic studies before it could build stores. In Los Angeles, officials are drafting an ordinance that would effectively ban such stores from the city.
The Supercenter in Inglewood was proposed for an area the size of 17 football fields between the Hollywood Racetrack and the Forum, the arena that once served as home court to the Los Angeles Lakers. In addition to the household products, clothing and drugs commonly sold in Wal-Mart stores, Supercenters sell groceries. Analysts have said that the chain’s share of grocery sales in California could reach 20%.
The prospect of the Wal-Mart expansion fueled the longest supermarket strike in Southern California history. Tens of thousands of grocery workers, who earn an average of $13 an hour, walked picket lines last fall and winter to protest reductions in health benefits that the supermarkets said were needed to compete with Wal-Mart.
The question on Tuesday’s ballot in Inglewood was whether to allow the retailer to obtain building permits without a public hearing or environmental impact study. Many community leaders and Inglewood city officials, except the mayor, said the measure would set a dangerous precedent for cities nationwide by preempting local control over the development process and circumventing environmental review of large projects.
“They want to be the big gorilla and not even offer one banana,” Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) said Tuesday. “Clearly, this is a test site for Wal-Mart to determine if they can go from city to city to city, preempting state law and local building and safety codes.... I think everyone should prepare for a full frontal attack from Wal-Mart.”
The campaign for and against the measure was intense, and city officials called Tuesday’s turnout “robust.” Throughout the campaign, opposing sides held street fairs, gave away food and offered free rides to the polls.
In the days leading up to the election, competition for votes became an open scuffle, with each side trying to crash the other’s publicity events. At a Vote No rally last week, protesters rushed a lone man who was holding a sign that lauded the project as “Good News for Inglewood.” Protesters tried to use their signs to hide him from news cameras. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) joined the opposition effort Monday.
Inglewood city officials and Wal-Mart have been sparring for more than a year. Initially, the City Council tried to keep Wal-Mart from moving in by adopting an emergency ordinance in October 2002 that barred construction of retail stores larger than 155,000 square feet that sell more than 20,000 nontaxable items, such as food and drugs. Supercenters run about 200,000 square feet.
Within a month, the council withdrew the ordinance after Wal-Mart threatened to sue. Through a group called Citizens Committee to Welcome Wal-Mart to Inglewood, the company succeeded in calling the matter to a public vote by collecting about 6,500 signatures.
The company campaigned heavily throughout the city of 112,000. It flooded the city with television commercials and mailers depicting happy African American families and calling the development “good news for everyone in Inglewood.” The working-class town is roughly split between African Americans and Latinos.
The opposition included city, county and state officials, and clergy from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Nation of Islam and St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Inglewood.
However, some residents said they were swayed by Wal-Mart’s insistence that the Supercenter would bring jobs to town and generate $3 million to $5 million in sales tax revenue for better police services and new community centers.
After casting her vote in favor of the measure, homemaker Marie Glenn said the retailer would bring needed jobs for young people.
“I believe Inglewood needs the improvement. I think it’s great,” said Glenn, 50, who was at a doughnut shop that tried to spur voter interest today by giving away free treats. “The revenue would be great for the city.”
But the longtime owners of Randy’s Doughnuts, Larry and Ron Weintraub, both opposed the superstore.
Ron said that although he doesn’t live in Inglewood, a business he once owned in Texas went under when Wal-Mart came to town.
“I’m sure it’s going to hurt small business,” he said.
At a polling station in Darby Park, Carl Hargrove said he voted against the measure. The Supercenter would occupy a crumbling asphalt parking lot just a short walk from his home. Hargrove said it wasn’t a union issue to him, it was a quality of life issue. “It would create too much traffic for the area,” Hargrove said. “Groceries will bring in entirely too many people.”
At a party thrown by Supercenter opponents late Tuesday night, the Rev. Tony Muhammad said the vote showed that Wal-Mart’s “dollars can’t buy the people. They wanted a good fight, and they came to the right place.”