Wal-Mart cancels plans to build Atascadero store

Wal-Mart on Friday announced it has canceled plans to build a store in Atascadero, a surprise move that unravels a decade of planning and debate and kills a major source of expected tax revenue for the city.

The retailer cited a changing market and the increased demand for online shopping as the reasons behind its decison, according to a city news release.

The controversial, long-awaited project proposed about 123,000 square feet of building space and a 6,500-square-foot garden center at the southeast corner of the intersection of El Camino Real and Del Rio Road. Wal-Mart was expected to generate roughly $580,000 per year in sales tax revenue, according to figures previously released by the city.

As recently as August, the project cleared an important hurdle — the creation of a commercial facilities district needed to levy a special tax on the store so the city would not be on the hook for its related costs. Construction on the store was expected to begin in July.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said Friday “a lot of factors” went into the decision, including the company’s shift toward online retail with the purchase of Jet, a growing online shopping website, in August.

“The reality is that we’re continuing to innovate our business as well as improve our existing stores in the region,” Garcia said. “While brick-and-mortar stores remain an important way in which we serve our customers, we’ve also committed to building our capacity for e-commerce.”

The project drew substantial criticism from residents and the citizens group Save Atascadero, and was debated for years, ultimately surviving challenges in local and appellate courts.

Tom Comar, co-founder of Save Atascadero, was elated by the news, saying that it’s been nearly 11 years since he and roughly 500 other residents first met to learn about the ill-fated project.

“I’m very appreciative of all the Atascadero residents that saw that the Atascadero Wal-Mart was just not suitable for our small town,” Comar said. “We’ve made Atascadero great again.”

Comar said the termination of the project, at least in the short-term, saves the city millions of dollars in traffic mitigation costs, including the construction of a roundabout.

“It’s a big boon to the city not to have to fund that,” Comar said.

Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi, who was a longtime supporter of the project, said Friday that she was “sad” and “disappointed,” but that she did not blame the retail giant. She said the cost of doing business and the pace of development in California is cumbersome, so much so that it delayed the project until the Atascadero superstore was no longer viable.

“You can blame this on Jerry Brown as easy as you could Amazon,” Fonzi said.

Asked whether she thinks the city dodged a bullet in housing a future underperforming superstore, Fonzi said she believes the store would have succeeded in Atascadero.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Garcia did not offer specifics, but said the company plans to sell the property after it works with the city to “identity other suitable uses.”

“It’s going to involve a lot of planning about where we go from here with this property,” Fonzi said.

Mayor Tom O’Malley said he was “disappointed” the project wouldn’t be completed after 10 years of planning: “We were continually reassured that they’re moving forward, and I think they honestly were.”

“This would’ve been devastating news if it would hit in the middle of the recession,” he said. “There wouldn’t be a lot of options. The fact is, where we are right now is a very positive time. We have multiple fronts doing well.”

O’Malley said the city had been told Wal-Mart doesn’t intend to hold on to the property, which he said is already primed for another development. The site may not be home to another large business, but instead a few medium or small businesses, he said.

“This property is already assembled, the plans are approved, the zoning is right,” O’Malley said. “It’s a lot of potential and there’s a lot of folks looking.”

He said all of the public input given during the project also helped the city define itself: “It’s kind of come to some conclusions of what we want to be as a community.”

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