The Walmart fallacy

Because of our print deadlines, we won’t know how a proposal that could plant Walmart and its big-box brethren in downtown Sacramento will go Tuesday night. But with so many eyes on the Sacramento City Council and the money that’s exchanged gloved hands between the Walton Foundation and some council members, it’s not hard to imagine a very big can will get kicked down the road on August 20.

Here’s what we do know: The existing ordinance isn’t very good.

It’s ably stalled attempts by superstore retailers to invade the grid the past eight years, but even those who support it think it needs work.

That’s fine. But a coalition of business interests is hoping to make the tolerable the enemy of the good. They say superstore developers shouldn’t have to obtain a conditional use permit and submit an economic impact analysis detailing whether their 90,000-square-foot union-busters will A) pay comparable wages or B) run the local grocer out of town.

City planners agree. Their proposal scraps the requirement for a wage and benefit analysis, even when economic analysis reports are required (which would be on a case-by-case basis).

A lot of folks think this is nutty.

Of the 15 public comments registered at the August 13 council meeting, only two supported superstores, and both were from industry lobbyists, including Region Builders Inc. executive director Joshua Wood. Opponents included mostly residents and two state lawmakers, assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan, who registered their dismay in writing. Dickinson’s letter, read by a staffer, deemed the proposed repeal premature, with the assembly weighing tighter superstore regulations for California.

Council members Steve Cohn and Jay Schenirer edged staff toward a compromise proposal that could keep superstores contained to new growth areas, similar to the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance, which sets a certain percentage of developments aside for low-income units. Cohn sees an undeniable link between Walmart wages and the need for low-cost homes.

Big box stores hire part-time, low-wage employees who often can’t afford to rent or buy at market rates, he said. Elk Grove, which Region Builders holds up as a business-friendly model, charges a higher certification rate to big stores, and puts that money in a housing trust fund. Rather than require economic reports, Cohn floated the idea of investing that developer money into affordable housing. It’s not the only way to go, he said, but it’s worth consideration. (It’s also worth noting this ties into a contentious debate about changes to the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance, but one kerfluffle at a time.)

But Cohn sees no merit in the notion that Sacramento loses fat sales tax revenues to neighboring communities with lax regulations. “The interesting thing is these big box stores [bring in] the lowest tax revenues per acre of land use,” he told SN&R “Now, I grant you, they do generate more tax revenues than empty land, [but] that’s the only [thing] that they beat.”

According to SN&R’s Facebook page, they’re also pretty good at beating underwear prices.

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