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Wal-Mart Supercenter studies still underway
It's been over a year that the Wal-Mart Supercenter was first publicly breathed as a possibility in Ceres' future. A 10-month environmental impact report process was originally projected, with public review slated to occur in April.

But it's now July and things have been very quiet about the controversial project. Nothing sinister or sneaky has happened, say city officials. It's just that the original time table was off.

"It may have been a little bit optimistic for the city to have said we're going to have it done by mid year of 2008," said Barry Siebe, planning manager for the city of Ceres.

The project is mired in studies, about halfway through the environmental review process.

Environmental studies must take into account the impact the proposed Mitchell Ranch Center will have on local traffic, air quality, noise and existing merchants. Pacific Municipal Consultants (PMC) is conducting the EIR on behalf of the city.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter is the anchor of the 26-acre project at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads. The proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter is only one element of the 304,000-square-foot retail space center. The Supercenter would occupy about 208,172 square feet as the anchor of the center with approximately 36,167 square feet of grocery sales.

According to Siebe, the EIR process got off to a later start than PMC predicted. The scoping meeting that kicked off the EIR process was held in September.

"We're about mid-way point, maybe a little further along," said Siebe.

He suggests that a public review of the draft EIR will begin in September, with Planning Commission review in October. The City Council could weigh the matter in January.

The proposed building site is owned by Florida-based Regency Realty Group, the company proposing development.

Siebe said the sheer size of the project requires careful review. But the name of Wal-Mart also gives the city reason to carefully proceed.

Because a Wal-Mart is being proposed, the environmental studies must include a study of economic impacts. PMC has hired a subcontractor in Bay Area Economics (BAE) to study the economic impacts of the Supercenter. The city must determine what a mega Wal-Mart would do to existing businesses and what might happen if Wal-Mart abandons its existing store location at Mitchell and Hatch roads.

"When you're talking about one of these projects that has kind of everything under one roof," said Siebe, "the nature of that does require some consideration for other types of retail in the area."

Recent court decisions linked to large big box retailers have indicated that a complete Environmental Impact Report (EIR) should include an economics impact analysis to assess potentials of urban decay due to possible closure of competing stores and subsequent vacancies and decline of respective shopping centers.

Wal-Mart company officials have indicated they plan to leave the existing Hatch Road Wal-Mart store open after renovating it. Some have questioned the truthfulness of that statement, wondering how Ceres can support two Wal-Marts.

Supercenters differ from regular Wal-Mart stores because they are larger and sell groceries, electronics and many other products. They typically offer better prices than established grocery stores but have proven controversial in many California communities protective of smaller merchants.

PMC is partnering also with Fehr & Peers to study traffic impacts caused by the proposal. The project is deemed to carry with it significant impacts to roads.

"We're certainly working with the Regency folks who are the actual applicant," said Siebe. "We meet with them on a pretty regular basis to discuss points regarding the EIR or project in general. It is progressing but it is a large project and there are a multitude of things that have to be looked at and evaluated and analyzed in the EIR."