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Planners postpone decision on Supercenter
Ceres Planning Commission members were unable Tuesday evening to decide on an application to construct the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with its anchor tenant, the Walmart Supercenter. At the conclusion of a meeting - which started at 6 p.m. and ended at 11:35 p.m. and included the input of numerous proponents and opponents - the panel continued its public hearing to Monday, April 4.

Walmart owns a 26-acre vacant site at Mitchell and Service roads which it hopes to develop. The project has been in the works since 2007.

If approved, the national retail giant will close its store at Hatch and Mitchell roads and build a 185,668-square-foot Walmart Supercenter with 36,167 square feet devoted to grocery sales. At build-out, the center would bring 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet consisting of three other major tenants and four smaller shops as well as a stand-alone retail building and two to three restaurants.

Amelia Neufeld, Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations for the Walmart Corporation in Sacramento, said her company has over 10,000 supporters and said a survey of Ceres voters showed a 66 percent approval for the project.

"Our customers are telling us they want a new and expanded store in Ceres," said Neufeld.

While about half the crowd of 200 persons were supporters, the other half - including workers from other grocery stores - was not.

A number of employees of union stores were prompted by Feb. 15 memo issued by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union urged members in Ceres and Hughson to protest Walmart, which does not employ union workers. The memo claims 100 union jobs could be lost within a two- or three-mile radius since the Supercenter is projected to claim $16.3 million annually in local food purchases.

"Why do we need another Walmart?" asked Jasmine Perez, who has worked at Save Mart for four years.

Save Mart is one of the Ceres grocers identified as being jeopardized by the presence of a Supercenter, according to an economic analysis done by Ray Kennedy in the environmental review process.

Mary Jane Scheuber claimed that a Supercenter would not offer any better prices than already found at stores like Food4Less and Cost Less Foods. She argued that closure of the existing Walmart would cause blight at Ceres' northern gateway.

Bob Gutierrez, a representative of Food4Less up Mitchell Road, said his store has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Walmart at its current location.

A great number of supporters also spoke in favor of the application.

Mary Elkins, a 37-year Ceres resident, argued for the Supercenter, saying the store would prevent her from leaving town for cheaper groceries.

"We deserve this store," said Elkins.

"I have to go to Turlock to shop and get a good meal," said Julie Norton.

Social Security recipient Patricia Jones argued for the store, saying she has to shop in Modesto for cheaper groceries, adding "it's hard for people who live on fixed incomes."

Karen Mosser, a resident since 1958, said Walmart has always been supportive of worthy causes. That theme was repeated by Charlie Gross of the Ceres Partnership for Healthy Children and Cary Pope of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

From a planning perspective the project is a slam dunk. According to Senior Planner Tom Westbrook, the proposed shopping center is an appropriate use for the general plan designation of Regional Commercial.

However, the size of the project triggered an economic impact component of the Environmental Impact Report. While the report suggests that by capturing 16 percent of grocery sales the Supercenter could threaten one or two existing grocers, Walmart says it will add 85 jobs to its Ceres associate base of 375 employees. The center, once fully constructed once the economy picks up again, will see an estimated 120 new jobs.

The shopping center is proposed to have two access points on Don Pedro to the north, two access points to the east along Mitchell Road, and two points to the south along Service Road. Testimony included suggestions that the shopping center design be modified to do away with access from Don Pedro Road.

Lee Bertell, whose home would oppose one of two access points on Don Pedro Road, argued that truck deliveries would disrupt his peace and quiet and that of his neighbors. When he heard that some deliveries could be made as early as 4 a.m., Bertell said, "That just thrills me to death."

Commissioners expressed concerns about aspects of the project, including impacts to Mitchell and Service roads, blight that could occur if the Supercenter places over grocery stores out of business.

Commissioner Mike Kline expressed fears that the center would jam up Mitchell and Service roads until the Mitchell / Highway 99 interchange is completed. Funding is not available for the multi-million-dollar project and it could be well past a decade before it's a reality, said City Engineer Glenn Gebhardt.

Laurie Smith, another member of the commission, had a laundry list of points she wants explored, including greater detail how Walmart would affect existing stores.

In answer to Sheri Jacobsen's criticism that Walmart is proposing a "plain Jane" cookie-cutter design for Ceres, Smith wants to see what other unique building designs could be offered.

"I'd like to see more of a variation in the elevation they're proposing for our community," said Smith, "as it is right off the freeway and it's going to inspire people to either stop or not stop and this is our one chance to make sure that piece of property has something that represents who we are as Ceres, not what somebody else wants us to be."

Smith also wants to examine design alternative #2 which backs the store up to the southwest corner rather than to Don Pedro Road.

Smith was most vocal about how Walmart has kept its property, saying she is "disappointed" by the poor landscaping maintenance practices.

She concluded her remarks saying she is not necessarily opposed to the project.

Commission chairman Bob Kachel said he wants city staff to come back and give an analysis of how many jobs would be lost should Walmart bring on the closure of other stores.

"Economics are always a mine field in an EIR," commented Kachel.

Molina acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, saying both sides had valid arguments.

"I wish I could see everybody happy," said Molina.

Commissioner Gary Del Nero mentioned that there had been no talk of the impacts from the drive-through pharmacy.

Del Nero said he is not convinced the project will help Ceres' tax base.

Before Walmart could inhabit any new building, the City Council must sign onto the corporation's "Sales Strategy Plan" to get new tenants in the old building of 139,000 square feet.

The approval or rejection of a Conditional Use Permit and a Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map on April 4 will likely be appealed to the City Council.