Big-box store battle will test Auburn’s resolve

Another View
By: Tony Hazarian, publisher, Auburn Journal,
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Which came first – the first big-box retail store, or residents angry that such a store will unravel the community’s environmental, economic and social fabric? The two seem to go hand-in-hand these days. The drama is just beginning in North Auburn, where Roseville developer Jim Conkey has plans for a 155,000-square-foot retail complex that would fit nicely for a Wal-Mart or Costco store. Last week’s hearing on the project’s draft environmental impact report played like an opening act. Steve Cavolt, Conkey’s representative, professed the project would generate some 350 full- and part-time jobs when the store was completed. Nearby stores would also see an uptick in sales from regional consumers, he said. In the other corner, resident after resident took turns at the mike, saying the large retail store and its corresponding traffic congestion would spoil the adjoining neighborhoods. Some suggested the 18-acre site be purchased and turned into a park. Although most shoppers would enter off Highway 49, secondary access from Canal Street connects the store site to residential streets and cul-de-sacs. Canal Street connects to the east-west connector of Luther Road, which could bring traffic directly to the site from Interstate 80. Both sides have strong positions. Whether the site is the perfect one for a megastore, the North Auburn business district is considered one of Placer County’s current and future areas for expanded retail development. According to a 2007 economic study available through the county Web site, “retail leakage” in apparel, general merchandise and building materials indicated market support for an additional 185,000 square feet of retail space. Then-projected population growth estimated additional demand for 311,000 square feet by 2020. A lot has happened in three years, led by an economic downturn of historic proportions. The Plaza shopping center on Highway 49 was built, adding thousands of square feet of available retail space. Home Depot opened, filling the hole in building materials “leakage” cited in the 2007 study. Large retailers Best Buy and Bev Mo filled vacant space in Rock Creek Plaza. For the opponents, traffic congestion along Highway 49 continues to be an issue at rush hour, despite millions in road improvements. Three car dealerships have shuttered on the 49 strip, opening up potential future locations for retail that, conceivably, would add to traffic concerns. When the battle over the environmental impacts is fought and completed, the economic impact war will be waged. That front will be very interesting to watch. Best Buy and Bev Mo have helped rejuvenate the Bell Road shopping center, but a one-stop shop like Wal-Mart wouldn’t just serve up electronics and 5-cent wine sales – it would compete against a large segment of the small business retail base that makes up the Auburn economy. As the editor of a community newspaper in Gig Harbor, Wash., in the mid-1990s, I watched this same performance. Wal-Mart, then on a major expansion campaign, intended to put a store right near the major highway and a stone’s throw from the harbor fishing village. At the start, neighbors spoke out against the store’s size, scope and traffic impacts. Those voices galvanized under the bullhorn of a citizen-led anti-growth group, whose members engaged small business owners in the fight. After more than two years of hearings and legal maneuvering, Wal-Mart pulled up its stakes and focused its energy on welcoming communities. Less than a decade later, a planned residential and retail development – with government and small business blessing – opened a few miles down the highway. One major difference is that North Auburn already is a hub of small- and large-scale retail. Would another large retailer, even the largest one on the planet, make a discernible difference? What will the city of Auburn say, especially after failing to close a deal with Costco on a site along Nevada Street last year? What position will the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce take? Will Think Auburn First speak out, or seek membership from Conkey and his retail partner? Stay tuned. We’re just getting warmed up. Tony Hazarian is the publisher of the Auburn Journal.