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Stage set for Mitchell Ranch project discussion
Ceres Planning Commission members have a myriad of issues to consider on Feb. 22 when the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center - and its anchor tenant, the Walmart Supercenter - comes before them.

According to city planning staff, the proposed 26-acre shopping center is an appropriate use for the general plan designation of Regional Commercial set for the corner of Mitchell and Service roads.

However, the city can consider the environmental and economic impacts of the project in deciding whether to approve a Conditional Use Permit and a Vesting Tentative Subdivision Map.

It may come as a surprise to many that the project doesn't need the approval of the Ceres City Council. That is unless someone decides to appeal the panel's decision by March 4 and pays the $507 filing fee.

Planners have plenty of reading material going into the meeting, which will likely draw a crowd for both pro and con. The staff report on the project is about an inch thick and the final Environmental Impact Report, which examines the proposed project from every angle, is over 200 pages.

The entire center consists of:

• An 185,668 square foot Walmart Supercenter with a 5,762 square foot enclosed outdoor garden center;

• 10 other retail shops totaling 114,162 square feet; consisting of three other major tenants yet to be determined, and four smaller shops;

• A stand-alone retail building of 3,250 square feet;

• A 63-seat fast food pad;

• A second restaurant pad of 3,000 square feet;

• And a building pad of 4,000 square feet.

However, if approved, the center will not be built in one phase, said Senior Planner Tom Westbrook. The Supercenter may be the only building on the sight for years. Development depends on when the economy shows signs of improvement.

Three big issues will likely dominate the focus of the commission.

Avoiding blight

The city is interested in seeing Walmart's plans to get someone to use the existing Walmart store at Hatch and Mitchell. The City Council, in fact, is requiring a "Sales Strategy Plan" to get new tenants in the building since the city doesn't want 139,000 square foot of retail on Ceres' busiest corner becoming an unused shell that brings on blight.

Walmart, which owns both sites, has no interest in letting the existing store go fallow, said Amelia Neufeld, Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations for the Walmart Corporation in Sacramento. She said Walmart has a real estate division that will concentrate on finding new uses that will provide tax revenue for Ceres.

One likely scenario will be dividing the old store into two or more parts. A similar tactic was used to fill the large Zody's building on Hatch Road with three tenants.

Economic impacts

City officials also need to evaluate if Walmart's plans to shift from a smaller existing store to a Supercenter miles down the street, will be a detriment to the local economy. A specially commissioned economic impact report was performed on the project. It concludes that grocery sales generated at the Supercenter will claim $16.3 million of food sales annually creating the possibility that some existing grocers could go out of business. The report identifies the closest stores as being most vulnerable, namely Save Mart, Richland and Keyes Supermarket.

Other types of stores, the report suggests, are not in jeopardy.

Don Pedro access an issue

The most noise against the project, so far, has come from residents along Don Pedro Avenue at the project's northern boundary who don't want any additional traffic due to the Supercenter. They have called for the developer to reconsider plans to place two access points on Don Pedro as well as have tractor-trailer rigs from entering and exiting loading docks at the rear of the store through their street.

In September petitions signed by 85 persons was submitted to the city calling for Don Pedro Road to be designated restricted versus ts current truck route designation.

"Staff recommends that the commission fully consider the pros and cons of truck access to the Mitchell Ranch project and the attendant effects on the neighborhood as part of making its decision.." read the staff report to the commission.

The residents prefer that the Supercenter back up against not their road but to a future road to the west.

The entire center is proposed to be accessible along Service Road by two points, Mitchell Road through two points and along Don Pedro by two points. The Don Pedro access calls for a new traffic signal at Mitchell Road.

The move will require Walmart to add 85 jobs to its Ceres associate base of 375 employees. Once the other retail buildings are completed and filled, the center will see an estimated 120 new jobs.

Tuesday's hearing comes nearly four years after the center was originally proposed by Regency Centers. The project was turned over to Walmart which bought the entire site in 2009.

Supercenter projects have been approved in Modesto - on McHenry Avenue - as well as recently in Patterson. Turlock told Walmart to go away in 2004.