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Walmart debate has brought out the best and worst in Ceres
Last week I paused at the door of my doctor's office on Don Pedro Road at Mitchell Road and looked to the vacant field stretching south between me and Highway 99. You couldn't tell that the uneventful field of dirt clods and yellow weeds represents the most debated issue in Ceres.

During my 24 years as editor of the Courier, no project has generated as much study and debate as the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center.

The application was filed April 2007 so it's time for action. Members of the Ceres City Council are poised to do just that on July 11. The Planning Commission approved the project 3-1 and it's only before the council as an appeal from a "small" group of opponents. The environmental impact issues have been studied and debated and recited ad naseum for three very long public hearings and the same people have repeated their remarks. Everyone has had their say.

Walmart says they have 10,000 signatures in support of the project and nationally Supercenters enjoy a 69 percent favorability rating with Americans (says Rasmussen). Foes of the Ceres project discount the number as either suspect or that the numbers are spread throughout the county. I don't question the numbers as Walmart attracts a large shopping base; Global Insights study found that Walmart saves the average American household more than $2,300 a year.

The issue has brought out the best and worst of debaters. I know because I sat through five hours of testimony on Feb. 23, approximately four hours on April 4 and between four and five hours on May 23. I recognized some expressions for the basic elements of propaganda which I learned about in college - such as glittering generalities, demonizing the enemy, half truths, obfuscation, and use of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Much of what was shared was the "touchy feeley" aspects of Walmart and not a detached intellectual discussion of the project itself. Officials really didn't find it germane that Walmart gives money to charitable causes like Ceres Partnership for Healthy Children or Alley Cat Guardians. It's irrelevant to the issue of a shopping center and besides most grocery stores give charitably.

Don Donaldson's comments didn't address any aspects of the project, focussing more on protecting the existing merchants who he's sees regularly and helps support youth sports. He mentioned having no friends in Arkansas, home-base to the Walmart Corporation. (I wonder if any kids in his basketball program have parents who work at the Ceres Walmart.)

Jasmine Perez, a Save Mart employee, said she didn't see a need for another Walmart in Ceres. Apparently company officials do see a need otherwise they wouldn't be investing millions of dollars to close the existing store and build a larger one closer to the freeway. Mike Lowe, a 37-year resident of Wallace Avenue, countered that in this rotten economy it's a great problem to have a company that wants to expand its operation in Ceres.

I understand being against a project but to fly in the face of the facts is laughable. One person asked why Ceres couldn't develop a project like Monte Vista Crossroads center in Turlock. An incredulous statement considering that the architectural renderings of Mitchell Ranch show a very similar look and feel as the popular Turlock center. The other person stated "nothing" was being done to mitigate the road impacts moments after it was explained that many intersections would be modified and new medians installed.

One individual (for whom I have immense respect) dislikes Walmart since they sell produce grown in other countries. Fine, but I know there are others who are willing to trade quality for price because that's what they can afford. Realistically, if inferior products is the standard by which we allow stores to be built, you'd have to get rid of all international import and dollar stores.

Sherri Jacobson has spent a lot of her recent life fighting for what she believes in - or doesn't believe in - going full bore against Walmart. I respect her for her enthusiasm but also note there isn't a criticism she hasn't lodged. Unlike the Don Pedro residents who have the most understandable reasons of not wanting extra traffic and noise, Jacobson has raised every issue imaginable (even raised hell in 2007 that the property owners had no right to tear down old dilapidated buildings on the site while the city insisted nothing was done incorrectly.)

Chief among Jacobson's arguments is that the archiectural design is too ordinary - she calls it "cookie cutter." Walmart, she says, has built special architectural designs for stores in upscale locations such as Washington, D.C., Napa County, American Canyon, San Diego and Hood River, Ore. I'll forsake her argument that a Valley town requires exceptional architecture to say that what she calls "cookie cutter" is vastly more attractive than the boxy store in Ceres today. It also bears some of the same architectural elements of the celebrated Ceres Community Center. Let the photos speak for themselves.

Can Jacobsen truly believe her own assertion that a shopping center of this size and prominence is not an economic development project? Consider that Walmart is increasing its floor space to 185,668 square feet and adding an estimated 85 employees to the existing number of 120. About 114,162 square feet of space will be constructed - just when depends on the economy - that is not occupied by Walmart. At build-out, the center is projected to offer jobs to an estimated 500 persons and increase tax revenues to the city of Ceres by $327,000 annually. Consider that a number of merchants kitty-corner at the corner of Service and Mitchell clamor for the project as they realize the spin-off trade that will result from those attracted to a Supercenter.

While a number have expressed concern about the old store building staying vacant a long time - like the Zody's building did on Hatch Road - there is also a fair chance that the site could snag a new retailer or recreation use. We just don't know. One commercial marketer has stated that Ceres will have no problem filling that building. Possibilities thrown around include a bowling alley, indoor recreation or one of a myriad of retailers like Michael's, Petco, Ross Dress for Less, Pier 1 Imports, PetsMart, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl's, Hobby Lobby, Marshalls, Sears, Babies R Us, T.J. Maxx, Cost Plus World Market, Office Depot, Fry's Electronics, HomeGoods, Joann's and BevMo!

Here's what some of the opponents have stated over the years and ask yourself if these are good sound reasons to say no to the shopping center:

• Rick Rushton: "If Walmart is not committed to providing Ceres with full-time, living-wage jobs, we should deny their application." (Under that criteria, there goes McDonalds or Rite Aid or the majority of Ceres businesses including all fast-food outlets.)

• Jon and Geri Ottersbach stated that a big concern is the EIR "tries to hide the true impact of losing our prime farmland by stating that the land has not been cultivated for a long time...we are not being told our options...for example, a beautiful strawberry field..." That may have been an argument before annexation but not after. The only thing the land grows today is weeds; not one almond tree, not one corn stalk, not one squash plant for decades. Besides I really don't believe landowner Walmart is interested in growing strawberries and I doubt that would generate full-time living wages.

• Florence Cardenas: "it will bring nothing but decline." That contradict Bob Gutierrez of Food 4 Less who states his company doesn't want Walmart to uproot and move south as his store benefits from the spin-off trade from existing Walmart. So much for decline; seems all merchants want to be located near one. Besides, if Food 4 Less is really concerned about losing spin-off business - as opposed to a more obvious concern of the retail giant cutting in on their grocery trade - they should be comforted in the words of economic analyst Ray Kennedy of Bay Area Economics. On Feb. 22 he stated that the intersection of Hatch/Mitchell will remain "a gateway intersection for the city .... even if Walmart closes" and added "I still think that's a strong intersection... perhaps not as strong as it is now and nothing says that the (building) will be closed forever."

Now for some pure undiluted facts, not opinion:

• The Supercenter and center are a permitted use. The only reason a conditional use permit is required is because of alcohol sales and the future restaurants.

• The center meets all development standards, including the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan.

• It is consistent with the city's general plan and meets all goals and policies.

• At least six intersections will be improved and medians added at the cost of Walmart (not the taxpayers) to deal with the extra traffic.

It's a free country. Walmart has jumped through the hoops and played by the rules. Seems a no-brainer to me.

How do you feel? Let Jeff by e-mailing him at