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Supercenter under scrutiny
More scrutiny is being paid to this proposed shopping center than any other in the history of Ceres.

The draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) issued for the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center took 2 1/2 years to craft and is extremely lengthy. It covers just about any impact of a shopping center on a community, including traffic, noise, air pollution, and the economy. The attention is more intense because the main tenant is a large Walmart Supercenter. The EIR has a component that looks at the economic impacts to the economy of Ceres and area as well as impacts to existing retailers, notably the existing grocery stores.

"It's a big project and a lot of work went into it so I want to go through it in detail," said Mayor Anthony Cannella.

City officials have a lot to ponder in considering the 26-acre project at Service and Mitchell roads. The center would bring to Ceres 304,000 square feet of new retail space - including two fast-food pads - but the Supercenter is 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 service uses may include a bank, vision center, and hair salon.

Cannella said he is concerned about what happens to the existing Walmart store at Hatch and Mitchell roads if the city eventually gives a thumbs-up to the Supercenter. The mayor said he remembers big box retailer Zody's closing its Hatch Road store and it remaining vacant for 20 years. It was later filled by a Sears Outlet, then divided into three units filled by Factory-2-You, 99 Cents Only and Big 5 Sporting Goods.

"I'm not going to settle for a large store on our busiest corner to be closed," said Cannella. "I just can't in good conscious vote for that so there needs to be a plan to re-tenant or some plan to deal with it. I'm not excited about that personally."

He added that wouldn't necessarily need the name of the next tenant but would need to see a plan to fill the abandoned store and a time frame "before I personally feel comfortably voting for it."

"As of yet I've not been told what the plan is," said Cannella.

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 other use for the building.

"We do not own any Walmart stores in California that are vacant," said Neufeld. "We have an entire division of Walmart called Walmart Realty that is a real estate company... We believe that we have a responsibility to work with communities to find a use that generates economic growth opportunities."

"I think for us it's just a matter of communicating with the city and letting them know that 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.

Neufeld said that last year Walmart recently closed a store on White Lane in Bakersfield to open a Supercenter on Panama Lane there and quickly signed a lease for a new tenant, a clothing store, to fill the old store.

However, the EIR suggests that the space of the closed Walmart "may prove difficult to re-tenant, especially in the short term. This property presents the potential for urban decay, depending on the property owner's ability to find a new tenant and the City's willingness and ability to enforce ordinances regarding upkeep of the physical property.

The concern in Ceres about leaving behind the skeletal remains of a thriving store for a larger store - the equivalent size of about six football fields - down the road is by no means a new one. Many communities across the country have battled against the larger store - Turlock being one of them - but since the first California supercenter opened in 2004 in La Quinta near Palm Springs, Walmart has opened many more supercenters. Proponents like the cheaper grocery prices, a plus in a bad economy. According to a study released by the company, the average shopper at a Walmart Supercenter pays 20 percent less than at supermarkets paying union wages.

The reasons vary for protesting Supercenters across the country. Some opponents cite the increased traffic, affects on well established and often smaller grocery stores, and the desire to refrain from mega retail glut. Others bash Walmart for paying non-union wages. Many existing grocers protest for fear the corporation will put them out of business.

The 22-page Section 4.5 of the draft EIR addresses ways the Wal-Mart Supercenter would affect existing businesses and what might happen when Wal-Mart abandons its existing store location at Mitchell and Hatch roads. This statement appears on page 20 of the section: "Development of the proposed Mitchell Ranch Center project with a Walmart store along with other planned retail projects in the region may result in closure of competing businesses. These closures may increase the inability of property owners to lease vacant buildings, potentially resulting in physical deterioration and urban decay. This impact is less than cumulatively


Senior Planner Tom Westbrook said that the city doesn't expect a "significant increase in tax revenue from the new store to the old store."

The document 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 would capture 16 percent of Ceres' grocery sales, which could impact stores like Save Mart and Richland. The EIR indicates that the draw to the new Walmart could impact Keyes Supermarket, just 2.2 miles away.

The Supercenter would continue to lure shoppers from other communities with limited shopping opportunities, including Hughson, Keyes, Waterford, Roberts Ferry and Hickman.

Economists who studied the project and the local economy state 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 slightly 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.

The review period is drawing input from residents on the impacts with some offering suggestions. Florence Cardenas, a resident of nearby Archcliffe Drive since 1990, has reviewed the EIR and doesn't want Don Pedro Avenue offering access to the project. She wants to see the project blocked off from Don Pedro Avenue with a wall and have the store placed at the southwest corner of the parcel, facing Mitchell Road. It is currently drawn to face Service Road with its back to Don Pedro Avenue. Cardenas said "there is no way that residents on or near Don Pedro Road should be expected to handle the increased traffic, noise, and air pollution that will be created by having a 24-hour Supercenter so close."

The center is expected to generate seven to nine truck deliveries per day as well as eight to 10 vendor trucks.

The plan calls for the building of an 8-foot-tall noise barriers at the back of the Supercenter and the other stores and placement of loading docks below ground level. Noise would still be an issue, the EIR notes, with decibels ranging from 42 and 63 at its highest.

Some are concerned about the store being open around the clock with its impacts, notably noise.

The EIR addresses ways to mitigate the extra traffic that would be generated by the project. Two new traffic signals would be added along Mitchell Road and Don Pedro and Service roads would be widened to accommodate the increase in traffic. Shoppers would be able to enter the center at two driveways each on Service, Mitchell and Don Pedro roads.

For years city officials have been planning for the region - called the Southern Gateway - to be developed as a regional retail center. In 2008, the 17-acre Ceres Gateway Center was approved for the southwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads with a three-story, 162-room Hampton Inn but the economy has temporarily halted its development.