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Thursday, May 12 2011 07:35 AM

Commission continues Walmart hearing

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The Tehachapi Planning Commission listens to Community Development Director David James discuss the plan for a Walmart Supercenter. The commission heard public testimony and continued the meeting to Jan. 31.

The Tehachapi Planning Commission, at its Jan. 10 meeting, delayed taking final action on Walmart's application to build a Supercenter on Tucker Road until Jan. 31 to enable all who wish to speak to have their say.


The Jan. 31 meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the Tehachapi High School gymnasium, 801 Dennison Rd., Tehachapi.

Of the 20 members of the public who spoke at the Jan. 10 meeting, 15 expressed support for the project and five were opposed.

Acknowledging that many people were unable to be seated in the small BeeKay Theatre at the Jan. 10 meeting, the commission voted 5-0 as the first order of business to carry on with the evening's scheduled agenda and then continue the proceeding to the later date.

The Jan. 10 meeting began at 6:07 p.m. and ended at 8:24 p.m. Eighty-five of the 105 seats were reserved for the public (the rest were for consultants and city officials).

A head count by the Tehachapi News and estimation by others on the scene indicated that approximately 200 people could not gain entrance to the meeting and left.  Some people have estimated up to 300 people turned away due to lack of space.

Kern County Fire Department Captain Tony Diffenbaugh, the Fire Marshall gatekeeper, explained the situation to those waiting in the lobby and outside in the windy 39-degree weather as he controlled entry of the overflow crowd. During the meeting, some people left by ones and twos and others were allowed in.

The meeting ended when all those present who wished to speak had taken a turn.

Tehachapi City Manager Greg Garrett said later that until the Jan. 10 meeting, the city was not aware of a groundswell of either support for or opposition to Walmart, and therefore did not engage a larger venue.


Diversity of opinion

Following presentations by Tehachapi Community Development Director David James and consultants Keil D. Maberry of Linscott, Law and Greenspan, Engineers; Roger A. Dale of The Natelson Dale Group, Inc.; Curtis Zacuto of EcoTierra Consulting; and Walmart Public Affairs and Government Relations Senior Manager Amelia Neufeld, the 20 members of the public spoke, both for and against construction of the 165,000-square-foot Supercenter. 

Many people, including a sizeable number of senior citizens, arrived at the BeeKay following a Walmart-sponsored reception at the Apple Shed for supporters of the project. Guests were given buttons to wear that said “Jobs.” 

Shannon Turner, on the other hand, stood outside the theatre collecting signatures in opposition to the project. She said she had decided the previous Thursday to circulate a petition because she had seen the impact of a Walmart at her previous home of Lompoc.

Supporting public comments focused on the economy of shopping at Walmart, while opposition focused on the changes the big box store will bring to the community. 

The review by James and the consultants covered material that is in the Draft Environmental Impact Report and the Final Environmental Impact Report, which addresses public and agency comments and corrections. 


Capsule comments

Public speaker Gary Pearson of Cummings Valley expressed strong support.

“I used to hate Walmart,” he said. “They've improved.”

Pearson said he did price comparisons between an Antelope Valley Walmart and grocery stores here, and the savings was 60 percent on 21 items.

“We need another supermarket and we need competition,” he said. 

The next speaker scolded the commission for miscalculating the size of the crowd and said, “I am for Walmart.”

Diane Deutsch said her inquiries to the city have gone unanswered and that Walmart will be harmful to small businesses.

William Nelson, who earlier in the day had filed a memo with the city asserting improper procedure in the project, said mitigation measures are inadequate and that commissioners Charles White and Kim Nixon should recuse themselves because of conflict of interests.

Jim Best, the father of 11, said he saves $4,800 a year shopping at Walmart elsewhere.

“I would rather shop here,” he said. “It's going to uplift this community. I will continue to shop at Kmart.”


Subsidies?

A woman from Sand Canyon said the city, county, state and federal governments subsidize Walmart in providing water, power, gas, access roads, fire protection, utilities and police. She also objected to the merchandise being made “in a communist country. I resent it.” 

“For every job Walmart produces,” she said, “one-and-a-half jobs are lost.”

“I love Walmart,” said a woman who moved here from Ridgecrest. “America is built on the system of free enterprise.” 

Timothy Wilheim, a senior at Tehachapi High School, endorsed Walmart for the jobs.

“I can't stay in Tehachapi. There are no jobs here,” he said. “I would love to stay here.”

Shannon Turner said that people in other businesses “are scared about losing their jobs.” She said that in her former home of Lompoc, the little shops that sold yarn,beads and lamps went under following the arrival of Walmart.

She said she had got 185 signatures in four days in opposition to Walmart.

“A lot of people are very passionate about this,” she said. “We should hang on to our individualism.”

Mary Beth Garrison, as president of the Greater Tehachapi Economic Development Council, presented that body's endorsement of the Walmart project. She said that Tehachapi needs to capture the people who do their shopping in Bakersfield and the Antelope Valley, as they spend money in other ways — in hair salons and boutique stores — when they travel down the hill to shop at a Walmart.

Mike Nixon pointed out that building a Walmart is a big commitment on the part of the company.

“It's a huge undertaking,” he said. “There's a lot of accountability on the table. We are still the U.S.A. and we have an obligation to the laws (that enable people to open a business).”

Another man, a 35-year resident, said he has five children and “never shopped here.” To save money, he said, he took his business to a Walmart.

Another public speaker expressed doubt that Walmart would provide 300 jobs as promised.

“Look at the number of people working (in a Walmart),” he said. “I have never seen 150 people.”

[NOTE: The proposed Walmart would be open 24 hours. That's three shifts of people.]

Manny Terrazas, who retired from Hughes Aircraft, said he worked for Walmart for eight years before return to his hometown.

“It's a wonderful company. They help everybody out as much as possible.”


Choices 

“We need to have choices here,” said Alice Juckes, immediate past president of the Greater Tehachapi Economic Development Council. She also said customer service in Tehachapi would improve with competition.

“The economic arguments are fatuous,” said William Nelson, speaking again. “The city has lost its bargaining position. It is intimidated by the Walmart position.”

“I would like to see a Walmart here,” said Vincent Petracchione, wearing a black cowboy hat. “People buy where the price is decent and reasonable. Places like Walmart helped me survive during the recession because my recession is still going.”

“As soon as they (client) finds out there is no shopping, they say, 'Why on earth would I want to move there?' If we had a Walmart I would be able to fill up houses that are empty now.”

Ray Bilger, who did not speak but submitted a written statement, endorsed an official vote on the matter, “because this will impact everyone in ways we cannot now imagine.”

All members of the Planning Commission were present on Jan. 10. They are Sonja Wilson, Charles White, Chairman Kim Nixon, Rachel Rudd and Marisa Folse.

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