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Supercenter nearing end of studies
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Will the Patterson City Council's unanimous approval of a Walmart Supercenter on the west side influence Ceres city officials to approve a similar store here?

Mayor Anthony Cannella doesn't believe last week's Patterson's action encourages or discourages the outcome of a Ceres decision.

"I don't see it as making it easier or harder," said Cannella.

The Supercenter in Patterson is only the second to be approved in Stanislaus County. The first Walmart Supercenter opened on McHenry Avenue in Modesto. Turlock rejected a Supercenter in 2003 after approving a controversial ordinance that prohibits retail outlets in excess of 100,000 square feet from devoting more than 5 percent space to the sale of groceries and prescription drugs. The ordinance exempted membership stores like Costco however.

The Patterson council approved a 158,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter for Sperry and Ward avenues. As in Ceres, plans to build a Supercenter in Patterson have its supporters and detractors. The same concerns about the Ceres project were heard in Patterson: That the large retailers would generate traffic, pollution and noise and edge out existing grocers.

Comparing both projects may be more like comparing apples to oranges. Unlike Patterson, the city of Ceres must wrestle with what to do with a large vacant Walmart store left as operations switch to a new Supercenter. The thought of a large building remaining empty at the city's busiest intersection of Hatch and Mitchell roads has the council concerned. Cannella insists he needs to see Walmart's plan to re-tenant the existing store before he'd feel comfortable voting for the Supercenter.

"I have vivid memories of the Zody's building sitting idle for decades," remarked Cannella.

Zody's left a large commercial void on Hatch Road for over a decade until it was occupied by Sears Outlet, later abandoned and then later split up for 99 Cents Only, Big 5 Sporting Goods and Factory 2 You.

Amelia Neufeld, Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations for the Walmart Corporation in Sacramento, said every effort will be made to find a retailer or another use for the building. "It's certainly not Walmart's interest to have a vacancy on our books so we are very aggressive about leasing out to interested tenants," said Neufeld.

However, the draft EIR suggests that an empty Walmart building "may prove difficult to re-tenant, especially in the short term."

The two cities also have totally different revenue pictures linked to their respective Supercenter projects. The Patterson Supercenter is projected to net the city $688,000 annually in new sales and property taxes and fees as the store stops the sales tax bleed to other communities. The Ceres project, however, is expected to be a wash as the large retailer sucks sales from existing merchants. Senior Planner Tom Westbrook said that the city doesn't expect a "significant increase in tax revenue" from the project but there's indications Ceres may keep more shopping dollars in town once the project is constructed.

The draft EIR notes that a Supercenter may "result in closure of competing businesses" but called the impact "less than cumulatively considerable." Most vulnerable, the EIR forecasts, are nearby Save Mart and Richland markets prone to loss as the Supercenter captures an estimated 16 percent of Ceres' grocery sales. Keyes Supermarket in Keyes, just over two miles away, could be seriously affected, the report states.

If approved, the proposed Ceres Walmart Supercenter will be the anchor tenant of a 26-acre Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads. The application is expected to go before the Ceres Planning Commission in either November or December.

"We're trying to complete the final Environmental Impact Report so I can't give a definite date," said Westbrook.

Westbrook believes the project can be decided in a single meeting but Cannella expects "lively discussions."

The shopping center would bring to Ceres 304,000 square feet of new retail space - including two fast-food pads - with a Supercenter sized at 208,172 square feet. The store would devote 36,167 square feet to grocery sales, including fresh produce, seafood, bakery, meat, and deli. Other services may include a bank, vision center, and hair salon.

Cannella said he hasn't made a decision about the project despite input from various individuals who are roughlu evenly split pro or con. He said he will look at the project based on its impacts and merits.

"People can talk to me all they want but I don't have a project right now to look at," said Cannella.

Lobbying the Ceres City Council may be a moot point since the ball may entirely be in the court of Ceres Planning Commissioners Gary Del Nero, Bob Kachel, Hugo Molina, Laurie Smith and Mike Kline. Originally, developers wanted Mitchell Ranch approved with a development agreement, an action which requires council approval. The applicant is no longer seeking a development agreement, which means the Planning Commission alone may decide on the conditional use permit and commercial subdivision application. The council would only be asked to weigh in on the project if the commission approval is appealed.