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Supercenter showdown on May 23
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The next big showdown for Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and its Walmart Supercenter anchor tenant will be on Monday, May 23.

Members of the Ceres City Council on Monday ordered the protest hearing to take place then.

On April 4 the Ceres Planning Commission voted 3-1 to approve the 26-acre project, proposed for vacant land at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads. The approval was appealed to the City Council by a group opposed to the project.

Members of a group calling themselves Citizens for Ceres, forces the four-member Ceres City Council to make the final call on the project. Besides the Walmart Supercenter, plans call for 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 new restaurants.

Walmart plans to close its existing store at Mitchell and Hatch and relocate it in a 185,668-square-foot store to the south to sell groceries. A bank, vision center and hair salon may be among the amenities.

Group spokesperson Sherri Jacobson said her group is opposed to the project on their belief that "it will destroy Ceres' neighborhoods, work against downtown revitalization plans, close local businesses and contribute to excessive traffic, air and light pollution."

An economic analysis of the project estimates no initial increase in sales taxes to Ceres when Walmart captures an estimated 16 percent of grocery sales. But build-out of the entire center will increase tax revenues to the city of Ceres by $327,000 annually. The report also indicated that the shopping center would also draw customers from neighboring communities of Hughson, Keyes, Waterford, Roberts Ferry, Hickman and Westley.

The group is represented by Stockton attorney Brett Jolley, who's fought Walmart expansion in other communities.

Amelia Neufeld, Walmart's Senior Manager of Public Affairs & Government Relations, said the project has the support of over 10,000 Ceres area residents who have signed petitions in support of Walmart plans.

Jacobson stated that the center "cannot be considered in any fashion, to be an economic development project. It will not have a lasting economic benefit for the Ceres community nor will it reflect the small town values that make Ceres so special."

An economic analysis contained within the Environmental Impact Report states that the project could help eliminate the sales bleed to other nearby communities. "Ceres may be losing sales to these larger neighbors as its residents seek shopping opportunities not found in Ceres itself," the report said.

Ceres has a per capita sales tax rate that is below the county and the state. For example, Ceres' per capita sales are estimated at $11,550 compared $13,839 for Modesto and $15,553 for Turlock.

Citizens for Ceres suggest that Walmart will create blight in Ceres by driving existing stores out of business. The EIR suggests that the project "may result in closure of competing businesses" but that "this impact is less than cumulatively considerable." The report suggests that the Supercenter could impact stores like Save Mart and Richland Market and Keyes Supermarket.

City officials say they are concerned about the future of the abandoned store, however, the City Council will approve a re-tenanting plan before the center pulls building permits. Neufeld said Walmart is "very aggressive about leasing out to interested tenants." However, some city officials have suggested they will not support a clause that excludes any potential retail competitor, such as Target.

Mayor Chris Vierra pledged that the council will evaluate the project on its merits, saying: "People can talk about the pros and the cons of Walmart but at the end of the day we don't govern by how employees are treated or how they give to the community but on the merits of the project."