Wal-Mart's plan to build its first Supercenter in Los Angeles County won a major boost Wednesday when opponents conceded that their referendum designed to block the project might actually allow the retail giant to build it more quickly.
Wal-Mart critics, including labor unions and community groups, hoped to kill a Supercenter planned for Rosemead by bringing the issue to voters sometime next year. They gathered the necessary 2,000 signatures. But they discovered this week that the ballot measure does not actually preclude Wal-Mart from building the Supercenter.
"We all had high hopes that the Wal-Mart project was going to be canceled. Apparently we were misinformed," said Frances Chavez, 48, a longtime Rosemead resident who collected signatures for the referendum. "Now we understand that the timeline for Wal-Mart may have gotten shortened, that they could build as soon as possible."
Wal-Mart opponents had hoped to block the project by overturning the development agreement between the city and the company. Instead, on the recommendation of Wal-Mart, the City Council voted this week to repeal the agreement, allowing the company to speed up construction.
Wal-Mart could break ground on the giant development in a month. "We are in the process of getting all our construction plans approved and our permits," said spokesman Peter Kanelos. "Once we have everything in order with the city, we'll begin grading as soon as possible."
Wal-Mart has been trying for more than a year to open a Supercenter -- which combines a full-scale supermarket with the regular discount store -- in the county. But it has faced strong opposition from unions and some politicians.
Rosemead officials approved the Supercenter, saying the city needed the tax revenue that Wal-Mart would bring. But critics said that the store would kill surrounding businesses and depress wages, especially for unionized workers at grocery stores that would be the Supercenter's main competition.
Rosemead City Manager Bill Crowe said he was as surprised as opponents that the ballot measure didn't call for halting the project.
"People were confused if they thought this was going to completely stop Wal-Mart," he said. "We were scratching our heads and thinking, 'This actually accelerates the project.' The irony is they're getting what they asked for, but not what they wanted."
Wal-Mart opponents arrived at the Rosemead City Council meeting on Tuesday night, confident that they were going to score a victory over the retail giant. They had heard Wal-Mart had asked for its development agreement with the city to be overturned.
But what opponents did not realize was that killing the agreement would still allow Wal-Mart to build the Supercenter. So at the council meeting, both opponents and supporters backed overturning the pact.
"Everybody came out for repealing the darn thing," Crowe said. Not only Wal-Mart, "but the opposition said repeal it or rescind it. The public waiting for the Wal-Mart and the Chamber of Commerce said we recommend you repeal it. They all had different reasons for wanting that to occur."
Chavez said she had a feeling things weren't going the opponents' way when members of a pro-Wal-Mart group stood up to support repealing the agreement.
"We thought they were being facetious. It didn't sit right with us. We were wondering what was going on," Chavez said. "We were asking, 'Why are they asking that the ordinance be rescinded unless they're being gracious about the fact the voters would turn against Wal-Mart in the polls.' "
Father Ralph Berg of Mission San Gabriel, who has voiced opposition to Wal-Mart, said the reversal was as swift as it was confusing. "It looked like we had a victory," he said. "Then it was almost like the mayor just pulled the rug from under us when she made the announcement that this was not going to stop Wal-Mart from going ahead."
During the raucous, standing-room-only meeting, city leaders, including Mayor Margaret Clark, asked Wal-Mart opponents why they had not drafted a referendum that actually addressed stopping the retailer from building a Supercenter in the city. Both sides took turns blaming each other for the misunderstanding.
"I felt we were just not handed the right information," Chavez said. "Something should have come from the council."
Joan Hunter, the president of the Rosemead Chamber of Commerce, said Wal-Mart opponents did not want to acknowledge they had made a mistake.
"They were blaming our City Council for something they should have known they were doing," Hunter said. "I think they finally realized they made a boo-boo and they want to blame other people."
Crowe said opponents could have written a referendum to repeal the general plan amendment that allowed the Supercenter to be built.