For three years, local politicians, labor unions and community activists have fought Wal-Mart’s efforts to bring a supercenter store into Los Angeles County.
But with little fanfare -- and few protests -- the county’s first supercenter is scheduled to open today in Palmdale.
The desert community 70 miles north of downtown L.A. has become the latest beachhead in Wal-Mart’s campaign to bring to California as many as 40 supercenters, combination department stores and grocery markets. The stores have come under fire from labor organizations and other groups that say the stores would put competitors out of business, including traditional supermarkets, which are unionized and generally provide better benefits and pay.
Wal-Mart’s decision to place the first L.A. County store in Palmdale underscores the retail giant’s strategy of opening its first supercenters in fast-growing, outlying areas where city leaders support new development and where unions are not as strong.
Most of the other supercenters are in Inland Empire suburbs. And Palmdale is in the heart of the north L.A. County region, where the population is expected to rise from 614,500 to 1,179,228 in the next 25 years.
“There’s not a lot of grocery stores here ... and the jobs are few and far between out here, so I think it’s a good place to open,” said Joy Hobberchalk, manager and a floral arranger for White’s Florist, near the new Wal-Mart.
The supercenter will also have a floral section, but Hobberchalk is not worrying about the competition. Instead, she’s working on contracting with Wal-Mart to train its employees in floral design, a practice she’s done previously with local Sam’s Club and Stater Bros. stores.
“I’ll be sending them flowers on their grand opening day,” she said.
Wal-Mart has received a decidedly more chilly reception elsewhere in the county. The L.A. City Council last year passed an ordinance requiring economic impact studies for supercenters and other extra-large stores. Last April, Inglewood voters overwhelmingly defeated an initiative that would have allowed such stores to be built without normal planning processes, such as traffic studies and public hearings. The vote was a rare defeat for Wal-Mart, which spent more than $1 million pushing the initiative.
Wal-Mart won approval last fall from the Rosemead City Council to build a supercenter less than 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. City Council members said they needed the tax revenues. The supercenter became a centerpiece of last November’s election, when two union-backed supercenter foes were elected to the council. The election result has not blocked the supercenter but the issue is far from resolved.
On Tuesday, supercenter opponents presented the city of Rosemead with more than 4,800 signatures calling for a special election to recall two council members who supported the opening of a supercenter. The county needs to verify 3,536 of those signatures in order for the city to hold a special election, which would likely take place early next year, said Assistant City Manager Don Wagner.
Wal-Mart foes argue that cities embracing the supercenters might see short-term sales tax gains but that, ultimately, the stores would put traditional grocery stores out of business, taking with them higher-paying jobs.
In Palmdale, labor leaders chose not to aggressively fight construction of the store but rather to encourage residents not to shop there.
“I don’t think the city fathers made it a public hoopla and I think there wasn’t as much opposition because people didn’t really know about it, it was not that advertised,” said Rod Diamond, secretary-treasurer for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770. “The message is educating the public. We have a website and we’re encouraging people to look at it and to tell their friends and family not to shop there.”
The only real protest occurred in June, when vandals caused roughly $88,000 in damage to the Wal-Mart construction site. The vandals spray-painted walls with phrases such as “Don’t swallow the lies” and “Wal-Mart slavery,” and pushed several scissor lifts off a loading dock, according to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. The vandals have not been arrested.
Palmdale officials said the supercenter will bring added tax revenues to the city coffers and provide more shopping options for residents.
“In general, every new center that is opened is well-received,” said Councilman James Root. Residents “are looking for some services and outlets.”
Added Mayor Jim Ledford, “We’ll take it, but I’m not sure it means much other than we’re the first ones. It’s really not a big deal for the folks here.”
Supercenters typically generate $500,000 or more annually in city tax revenue, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin, adding the Palmdale store will create about 300 jobs.
Retailing experts said it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart chose Palmdale.
“If you’ve got a strong union base, they’ll fight Wal-Mart tooth and nail,” said Richard Giss, a consumer business analyst for Deloitte & Touche. “In Palmdale, you don’t have local governments that are as entrenched with union support.”
Roxana Tynan of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which helped oppose Wal-Mart in Inglewood, downplayed the significance of the supercenter opening.
“In urban areas, they continue to be stymied,” Tynan said, adding that she and other opponents have been focusing on keeping supercenters out of L.A., Inglewood, Rosemead, Huntington Park and other areas closer to downtown.
“I don’t think we expect to prevent every supercenter in the country. They’re the largest corporation in the world,” she added. “But the fact that the opposition has stopped many of these supercenters ... is really shocking and exciting.”
In Palmdale, some residents are more excited about the prospect of checking out the new store. “It’s a closer drive for me,” said Alison VanGelder, who usually drives 25 minutes to a Stater Bros. grocery store across town.