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Garden Grove seems ready to accept Wal-Mart Supercenter

January 01, 2007|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

While other Southern California cities pass laws to prevent Wal-Mart Supercenters from opening, Garden Grove appears to be all but holding open the front door for the big-box retailer.

Pressed for money and looking for a way to revive a tired commercial district in central Garden Grove, city officials see a Supercenter as a potential savior.

"This is going to enhance the quality of life of our residents, and it will be an anchor to a blighted area," said Councilwoman Janet Nguyen.

Twenty-one Supercenters, which combine a regular Wal-Mart with a discount supermarket, have opened in the state, most in north Los Angeles County and outlying areas of the Inland Empire.

There has been a steady groundswell of opposition in many cases, built largely on the worry that the super-sized stores would crush local competition and leave towns drowning in traffic. In the last three months, San Diego and Long Beach have passed ordinances banning Supercenters.

The Supercenter in Garden Grove would be the first in Orange County and one of the few in an urban area. So far, the organized opposition has come from those outside the city.

A demonstration last month at the proposed site on Chapman Avenue at Brookhurst Street was organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, a statewide group that has pressed the discount store chain to pay its employees more, and Wake Up Wal-Mart, a national group based in Washington, D.C. The protest drew about two dozen religious leaders, union representatives and several local business owners.

"The city wants the revenue and they see dollar signs," said Wendy Tarr, a spokeswoman for the religious group. "But a lot of the time, the revenue they'll bring in is at the expense of the other businesses. It's redirected revenue."

Kevin McCall, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the company picked Garden Grove as the site of its first Supercenter in Orange County for a variety of reasons.

"It's pretty diverse socioeconomically," he said. "It has great freeway access and a number of supermarkets have pulled out of the area recently, so it's an underserved market."

Wal-Mart critics argue that the retail giant would depress wages, especially compared to the pay of unionized workers at grocery stores that would be the Supercenter's main competition.

Ismail Majoo, who owns a discount variety store in neighboring Santa Ana, is a member of the Main Street Coalition, a small group of clergy, labor leaders and small-business owners concerned about a Supercenter's impact on small business.

"The Supercenter will wipe out the small-business owner because of the store's aggressive pricing policy," Majoo said. "I'm not really worried about my business, but I do worry about the whole neighborhood."

The Rev. Wilfredo Benitez, rector at St. Anselm Episcopal Church in Garden Grove, has been the religious leader most outspoken against the Supercenter, attending two antiWal-Mart rallies and raising the issue three times in recent Sunday sermons.

"It's a bit frustrating," Benitez said. "It's territory a lot of pastors won't go into on Sunday morning. But we all have the moral imperative to stand on the side of the poor and those who would be exploited."

But many small-business owners who would be affected by a Supercenter said they envision Wal-Mart as a potential savior to the area. The Supercenter site has been vacant since a Vons Pavilion closed more than two years ago.

Shelly Holman owns one of the few businesses in the immediate area that has survived more than a few years. Her pet store, Collar and Leash, has outlasted larger retailers, such as Petco and PetSmart, so Holman isn't very worried about Wal-Mart.

"You can't really fight them; you might as well compete against them," Holman said. "Competition makes you change, but it also makes you better."

Once environmental studies are completed in the next few months and the project moves forward, Garden Grove officials expect a lot of discussion.

"There's going to be a lot of debate, on the fiscal, physical and philosophical side," said City Manager Matt Fertal. "We are expecting this issue will generate a lot of interest from inside and outside of Garden Grove."

The issue will come before the City Council in June or July. Nguyen has been a Wal-Mart proponent since the retailer announced its intentions last year.

Nguyen said she backed the Supercenter early because Wal-Mart was one of the few companies that came into Garden Grove not asking for a subsidy.

"We've offered this site for free to everyone -- Trader Joe's, Kohl's. We are begging for anchors to come in and no one wants to. This is the right project for the right center."

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david.mckibben@latimes.com

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