Atascadero Walmart approved in unanimous City Council vote

The Annex project at Del Rio Road is also approved by City Council

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comJune 26, 2012 

Atascadero wants a Walmart store to come to town — a decision nearly seven years in the making.

The unanimous vote came at 11 p.m. Tuesday after an emotional five hours of debate on whether the City Council should approve two shopping centers on the north end of town.

The Walmart could open as early as 2014.

In a crowd of nearly 300 people at City Hall, store supporters audibly shook paper fans handed out by Walmart, while critics sported homemade props. Dozens of people spoke for about two hours.

Supporters, who appeared to outnumber the critics, touted the retail giant for the roughly 250 jobs it could bring, plus the shopping opportunities and sales tax gains.

“It’s jobs, it’s taxes, it’s income. We need the money floating around in our community,” Atascadero resident Mary Lea Harris said.

Others said Walmart would help to bring business to the city that’s seen many shuttered stores over the years.

Longtime resident Bob Wilkins encouraged the council to “make an investment now for future residents” by approving the projects.

Critics questioned that investment — specifically, how much the city will put up to pay for related road improvements. Others were concerned that the store would hurt mom-and-pop shops and promote goods made in China.

The council’s approval also allowed for a separate development, The Annex, to be built next to the Walmart project. Both projects include shopping, dining and some housing at El Camino Real and Del Rio Road. A recent loss of much of The Annex’s property to foreclosure raises uncertainty on the future of the development, even while the bank plans to seek a new developer.

Tuesday’s meeting was the final step in the nearly seven-year discussion on whether the shopping centers are good for Atascadero. The debate has seen numerous milestones ranging from a failed ballot measure banning big-box stores to a dispute on how two developers would share roadwork costs.

Both centers are expected to bring increased noise and traffic to the area.

Mitigations of the projects’ impacts were detailed in an environmental report, also under consideration Tuesday.

Consultants say an estimated $4.5 million in roundabouts and related roadwork could fix the traffic problems expected at the Del Rio Road overpass at Highway 101, but Caltrans hasn’t approved them.

Critics said Tuesday the city needed to know the actual costs of the roadwork before telling Walmart and The Annex to build. “The potential cost to the city is too great to be based on (a concept),” Atascadero resident Ron Rothman said.

The city says Walmart could open in fiscal year 2014.

A Walmart store alone doesn’t prompt the overpass fixes, but the requirements kick in as soon as one more development builds around it, such as The Annex.

A cost-sharing plan to fund the work requires Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay about $2.2 million, with the city fronting the rest.

The city’s growth plan predicts it will expand in coming decades and future development fees would reimburse Atascadero. Some say that’s a gamble.

City staff recommends borrowing up to $1.5 million from the city’s sewer account, which holds about $10 million for expansion of a wastewater treatment plant.

The council didn’t consider that expenditure Tuesday, but the proposal with specific borrowing terms would be presented in about two years, officials said.

The Annex and Walmart are separate projects, but their impacts were studied together. As a result, the city considered them for approval at the same time. The city’s Planning Commission this month recommended that the council approve them both.

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