Editorial: Walmart developers should pay own way

There is a fine line between “discussions” and “negotiations.” The city of Atascadero should be careful not to cross it during upcoming talks on the funding of traffic improvements for a new Walmart center.

Some background: This week, the City Council authorized staff to enter into a “discussion” with developers of Walmart and The Annex, an adjacent shopping center, about how to pay for improvements on Del Rio Road.

Some residents are worried the city’s real intent is to pay a portion of those improvements, which will cost an estimated $3 million to $4.5 million.

Mayor Tom O’Malley assures us that staff is simply going to meet with the applicants to develop a list of options. Discussions could, for example, explore whether some improvements could be built in phases.

That’s fine, as long as the options don’t obligate the city to kick in any money.

In this case, we firmly believe the developers should pay their own way — which is what they offered to do practically from the start.

As Tribune writer Tonya Strickland reported, at a public meeting in October 2007, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and The Annex clearly indicated that they would pay for the environmental impact review and for any improvements recommended by that review.

Now, however, Wal-Mart has backed away from that offer and is instead expressing a willingness to pay its “fair share” of $1.7 million.

We understand that the project has changed over the years, and that may have led Wal-Mart to reassess the situation. For one, the size of the store has been greatly reduced to the point where it’s now about the same square footage as The Annex.

Apparently, Wal-Mart is now looking to The Annex to pay a greater share of costs.

Frankly, we don’t care who pays — as long as it’s not the city.

Regardless of whether or not the project has been downsized, the EIR makes it clear that the current plan will still generate a substantial increase in traffic. And that will still require expensive improvements to the Del Rio Road freeway interchange, as well as new roundabouts on Del Rio Road.

We don’t believe the city, which like every local government is struggling to maintain a decent level of services for its citizens, should be on the hook to step in and bail out the world’s largest retailer.

After all, Wal-Mart would not be building a store of any size unless it was sure it would be profitable. For it to quibble now over a relatively insignificant amount of money is only going to re-ignite the controversy that has divided the Atascadero community for far too long.

We strongly urge the developers to honor their original commitment to the city and find a way to pay for the necessary traffic improvements.