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Supervisor: North Auburn Wal-Mart a disappointment

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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He voted in favor of the Bohemia project in September but Auburn-area Supervisor Jim Holmes said Wednesday that he’s disappointed to learn that Wal-Mart has bought the North Auburn site. Holmes voted with other members of the Placer County Board of Supervisors Sept. 28 to deny an appeal by the Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment (APACE) group and support the planned 155,000-square foot retail project. At the time, Roseville developer Jim Conkey said that county approvals would allow a possible Costco or Wal-Mart to be built on the site. But Conkey and Bohemia Properties – owner of the 18.5-acre site it sold Dec. 29 to Wal-Mart – purposely described the project generically. Holmes said in an interview Wednesday that Wal-Mart isn’t the right fit for a community like Auburn. “I’m disappointed,” Holmes said. “But on the other hand, a private property owner has the right to make a deal whenever they want.” Citing “The Wal-Mart Effect,” a book detailing bad business practices written by Charles Fishman, Holmes said he has become particularly concerned with the corporation’s treatments of suppliers and the retail giant’s potential impact on communities like Auburn. The book criticizes Wal-Mart for “predatory pricing” practices that undercut local businesses until they close, and then raises them again when there is no competition. “The business model isn’t conducive to smaller towns,” Holmes said. The Journal has had no reply from Wal-Mart to requests for an interview. Costco – with a reputation for being secretive over its land dealings – also has consistently not replied to requests for comment on Bohemia, including one this week. The corporation’s real-estate division forwarded the request to CEO James D. Sinegal, a co-founder of the 25th largest business in the U.S. So far, he hasn’t called back. Conkey maintained through the development process that he wasn’t identifying a potential buyer for the property because a named company could pull out and force him to start again on an expensive quest for county approvals. But he did say Costco was a leading candidate. Opponents dispute Conkey’s claim, saying it was a ploy to deceive the public. The $10 million sale was made public Monday and Bohemia spokesman Steve Cavolt said that Costco and Wal-Mart were both still interested after the unanimous, final Board of Supervisors approval of the Bohemia project in September. Cavolt added that Costco bowed out when it became apparent that APACE was going to continue its opposition in court. Cavolt offered no proof or documentation, and opponents say the public was duped. Holmes stopped short of saying whether he believed that scenario or not. Others, like APACE member Victoria Connolly have questioned its veracity and contend Wal-Mart had targeted the store site, not Costco, for years. “Both sides have their opinions and they express them as well as they can,’ Holmes would only say. Holmes said that he voted for the generic Bohemia project – not a Wal-Mart. “Jim Conkey met all the conditions and I was very adamant that if it was a Wal-Mart proposal, I wouldn’t support it,” Holmes said. With the news this week of the Wal-Mart purchase, Holmes said he’s taken “a couple of nasty e-mails.” “But I’ve talked to a few ladies who are glad to see it “ Holmes said. “From what I’ve heard, I think the majority wanted Costco but others are comfortable with Wal-Mart.” Auburn Mayor Bill Kirby said he doesn’t think Costco was ever interested in the Bohemia site – 18.5 acres on a former lumber mill property near Luther Road and Highway 49. He too is leery about a Wal-Mart presence. “It’s not a good fit for the community and traffic is going to be an issue,” Kirby said. “There’s no doubt that Wal-Mart is going to hurt small business.” While the site is in the county, the new store will likely have an impact on sales tax revenues within Auburn city limits as it draws customers away from other businesses, he said. “It flew in the face of the majority of citizens but that is a county issue – people don’t have control because they don’t elect all the supervisors,” Kirby said. But the Bohemia draft environmental impact report commissioned by the county and paid for by the developer projects “a long-term healthy future for retailers in the project area.” The report, written amid a downturn in the economic growth in the region and approved in mid-2010 by the county, cites lower unemployment rates in Auburn and Grass Valley than other surrounding areas, and a diverse and strong local economy as two major factors in predicting that a club store or discount super center “is not likely to cause blight or urban decay.” The report estimates that the county will gain $637,000 a year in sales-tax revenue from the new Wal-Mart in North Auburn. Lavis Mundell, an Auburn resident for the past 12 years, said he’s not happy about Wal-Mart coming to town. “I don’t think we need the box stores,” Mundell said. “The Board of Supervisors needs to concern itself with quality of life in a small, rural community instead of turning it into a big city.”