Saturday, May 16, 2009

Competitor News: Wal-Mart Clears First Major Hurdle For Proposed Mega-Distribution Center in Merced, CA; Chain's Regional Strategy Moving Forward

Regional Market Report: California's Central Valley & Northern California

In this April 18, 2009 story [Competitor News: Wal-Mart Close to Clearing First Major Hurdle For its 1.1 Million Square-Foot Regional Distribution Center in Merced, California] Fresh & Easy Buzz reported that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. was close to clearing its first major hurdle towards its plans to build a mega-1.1 million square-foot regional distribution center in Merced, California, in the Golden State's Northern Central Valley region.

That initial hurdle has now been cleared by Wal-Mart: On April 27 a 90-day public comment period in which area residents could comment by letter pro or con to the City of Merced Planning Department about the proposed project's potential environmental and other impacts on the community and surrounding region ended.

As of the end of business on April 27 the City of Merced received 301 letters from area businesses, organizations and individuals regarding the planned 1.1 million square-foot Wal-Mart distribution center project, according to the city's planning department.

Next phase for Wal-Mart

The next phase of the now-ended public comment period has started.

That phase requires Wal-Mart's contract planning firm for the project, EDAW, to respond in writing to each of the 301 letters received by the CIty of Merced.

The 301 letters are a mix of comments in favor of and opposed to the proposed 1.1 million square-foot Merced Wal-Mart distribution center, according to the planning department. When we published our earlier story on April 18 there were about 50 letters submitted at that time, with the number of letters in favor of the project far exceeding the quantity of letters in opposition, according to the city's planning department.

Once the EDAW planning firm responds to all of the letters, the City of Merced Planning Commission will hold public hearings on the proposed project.

Those hearings could come soon, or much later, depending on how fast the planning firm responds to the letters, a process Wal-Mart is required to follow by law.

The hearings will include public input, allowing members of the public for and against the huge distribution center project to voice their opinions.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. has said it wants to break ground on the 1.1 million square foot distribution facility starting in early 2010.

The project, which Wal-Mart proposed in 2005, is to be built on 230 acres at Childs and Gerard avenues in southeast Merced, according to plans filed with the City of Merced Planning Department.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. says it estimates the distribution center will take about 18 months to complete.

If the planned mega-distribution center is ultimately approved by the planning commission, it then goes before the Merced City Council for discussion and debate -- and an eventual vote. In California, planning commissions, which are comprised of members appointed by the city council, only give advisory approval to projects. Elected officials must ultimately approve such projects.

Merced residents and others for and against the distribution center project also get a chance to voice their respective opinions at a public Merced City Council meeting before the elected officials vote on the project's approval or denial, according to the city.

Organized support and opposition groups

As we wrote about in our April 18, 2009 story, there are organized groups in favor of and against the proposed 1.1 million square-foot Wal-Mart distribution center project in Merced.

Leading the opposition to the proposed distribution center is a local organization called "Merced SWAT" (Stop Wal-Mart Action Team). You can read about the group's opposition to the project at its Web site here.

Another local group, the "Merced Alliance for Responsible Growth," also opposses the planned Wal-Mart distribution facility. There's overlap between this group and "Merced SWAT."

Two national anti-Wal-Mart groups have also joined the local organization, "Merced SWAT," in opposition to the proposed Merced Wal-Mart distribution center.

One of the two organizations is the well-know Wal-Mart watchdog group "Wal-Mart Watch." You can read what the group is saying about the proposed project at its Web site here.

The second national anti-Wal-Mart organization allied with the local Merced group is called "WARN" (Wal-Mart Alliance for Reform Now). The group says it's collaborating with "Merced SWAT" to oppose the 1.1 million square foot Wal-Mart distribution center project in Merced. Read what WARN has to say at its Web site here.

The proposed distribution facility project also has strong support in Merced however.

For example, a majority of the City Council has indicated it's in favor of the distribution center, which Wal-Mart says will bring 1,200 full-time jobs to Merced. The retailer says the facility will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Additionally, most of the city's and Merced County's business leaders are in favor of the project.

And informal polls of residents have shown widespread support for bringing the disctribution center and the estimated 1,200 new jobs to the city.

Lastly, a pro-distribution center organization called the "Merced County Jobs Coalitio"n is heading up support and lobbying efforts among proponents of the proposed 1.1 million square-foot Wal-Mart Merced distribution center.

Tough economic climate, high unemployment

Merced County, of which Merced is the county seat, currently has a whopping 20% unemployment rate, one of he highest in California. By comparison, California's overall joblessness rate is about 11.4%, and the current U.S. unemployment rate is just under 9%.

Additionally, Merced County, which up until about mid-2007 was one of the fastest-growing counties in California, has since early 2008 been one of the top-five counties in the U.S. in terms of having the highest per-capita housing foreclosure rates in the United States month after month. And its often been number one or two during this period, including just last month when it was the leading U.S. county in housing foreclosures, according to a number of firm's that track monthly foreclosures by county.

Local development watchers in Merced have told us in the recent past that they believe the planned Wal-Mart distribution center project will ultimately be approved by the City Council because new jobs are so desperately needed in the city and county.

However, it's important to note that since the April 27 public comment period on the project ended, the opposition groups have been gearing up considerably, including in the case of "Merced SWAT" recently hiring a Sacramento, California-based land-use lawyer to assist it in fighting the project, along with getting more aggressive with its public relations efforts.

Of course such opposition isn't anything new for Wal-Mart, particularly in California where it has had other distribution center proposals, along with numerous proposed mega-Supecenter stores, killed by opposition groups , cities and counties.

As a result, Wal-Mart is working closely with the City of Merced and with its allies in the city regarding its efforts to gain approval for the proposed 1.1 million square-foot facility. Supporters are touting the 1,200 new jobs and Wal-Mart is promising to spend additional monies in the city, buying supplies for the distribution center from local businesses and donating to a wide variety of groups and local organizations, as it does throughout the U.S.

There are three major retail grocery industry distribution facilities in Merced, so the proposed Wal-Mart facility would hardly be one of a kind if built, although it would be much larger than the existing three centers are.

Grocery wholesaler McClane Companies, which is owned by billionare Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, has a large distribution center in Merced from which it distributes grocery products to convenience stores throughout California and other western states.

Pleasanton, California-based Safeway Stores, Inc. operates a private label manufacturing and distribution facility in the city.

And Modesto, California-based Save Mart supermarkets operates a fresh produce distribution center in Merced.

Strategic importance

The proposed 1.1 million square-foot distribution center is crucial to Wal-Mart's strategic plans to grow its store count and market share in Central and Northern California, particular in the food and grocery categories, in which it is only a minor player at present in the regions.

For example, read our story here - February 11, 2009: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Isn't the Only Food & Grocery Retailer With its Eyes on Bakersfield: Wal-Mart's Bakersfield Push and Central Valley, CA Strategy; and our piece here - September 15, 2008: Wal-Mart Expanding its Discount Store-to-Supercenter Conversion Program As Part of its Strategy to Grab Even More Food and Grocery Sales Market Share.

The Merced facility would distribute everything contained in a giant Wal-Mart Supercenter, including perishable and non-perishable food and grocery products.

Right now, the political odds-makers in Merced tell Fresh & Easy Buzz that their money is on the ultimate approval by the Merced City Council of the project in the city of about 80,000 residents. Merced County has a population of about 250,000.

First Lady in Merced today

And today is a big day for Merced.

First Lady Michelle Obama is set to make her first and only university commencement address this afternoon to about 500 graduates of the University of California at Merced, the University of California's newest campus, which opened in the city in 2005. The class graduating today is the first full graduating class since the school was opened four years ago.

Ironically, the graduating class lured the First Lady to speak at today's commencement by launching a student-initiated letter writing and video lobbying campaign directed at Mrs. Obama, which included sending her a special Valentine's Day invitation in February, which was an invitation she apparently couldn't resist.

Perhaps the proponents and opponents of the proposed Merced Wal-Mart distribution center project could learn something from the University of California at Merced class of 2009 when it comes to launching successful letter writing and lobbying campaigns? After all, out of the huge stack of 2009 commencement speech requests she received, the First Lady chose just one, UC Merced, where she will speak this afternoon.

The city and the campus are conducting a two-day weekend festival in conjunction with the First Lady's commencement speech. As many as 15,000 -to- 20,000 people are expected to attend the graduation ceremonies on campus. The four year-old campus currently enrolls about 3,000 students.

Those same Merced political odds-makers tell us that today and tomorrow the proposed Wal-Mart distribution center issue is taking second place as a topic of discussion among residents as the city gears up for and celebrates the First Lady's visit. But come Monday, local residents tell us the proposed distribution facility issue will be back front and center as the main topic of discussion around town and in the city's coffee shops and pubs.

The proposed Merced mega-Wal-Mart regional distribution center is a major topic of discussion among the region's grocers as well, as they know the facility means more Wal-Mart Supercenters and likely other Wal-Mart format food and grocery stores in the region. That's a competitive prospect most grocers aren't looking forward to.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy in the Central Valley

Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighbohrood Market hopes to have a major impact on food and grocery retailing in California's Central Valley in the not too distant future.

Thus far, Tesco has three of its small-format, convenience-oriented Fresh & Easy combination grocery and fresh foods markets open in Bakersfield, which is in the southern Central Valley. The grocery chain plans to open at least six additional stores (four more in Bakersfield, one in Delano and one in Wasco) in Bakersfield and the surrounding region.

Fresh & Easy Buzz however is aware that at least two of the four additional Bakersfield Fresh & Easy stores have now been completed but are sitting empty and have yet to be opened by the grocery chain. Those two locations are at Brimhall & Jewetta and Hageman & Coffee in Bakersfield. The store in Delano also is completed but has yet to open. [February 11, 2009: Tesco to Open Third Bakersfield, California Fresh & Easy Store On February 25.]

Additionally, Tesco has at least 10 (seven in Fresno and three in nearby Clovis) Fresh & Easy markets slated for the Fresno Metropolitan region in the mid-Central Valley.

Tesco's Fresh & Easy hasn't opened any of the 10 Fresno-area Fresh & Easy stores despite the fact that some of the stores are completed and ready to open.

For example, the downtown Fresno Fresh & Easy market at Tulare and R Street, which we wrote about in this July 23, 2008 piece: [Fresno, California Fresh & Easy Grocery Store to Be First in Chain to Include Local, Community and Neighborhood Design Elements and Features] is completed but not yet opened.

Fresh & Easy has included the 10 Fresno stores as part of its indefinite postponement of its Northern California region launch, even though Fresno isn't technically in Northern California. Rather it's considered Central California. [See - November 12, 2008: Analysis: Hard Times at Fresh & Easy - Northern California Expansion to Be Postponed or Shelved Do to Economy; But its Only a Symptom Not the Cause. May 15, 2008: Fresh But Never Easy: Tesco's Long But Rapid South-North March in the Nation-State of California. May 6, 2009: Tesco Fresh & Easy Northern California Market Region Update ]

And in the Northern Central Valley, Tesco's Fresh & Easy thus far has three sites planned in Modesto, as we've previously reported. [See - March 31, 2009: Despite Having Postponed its Northern California Launch Indefinitely; Tesco's Fresh & Easy Planning Third Store in Modesto, California.]

But despite all these Central Valley sites, many of which contain completed Fresh & Easy markets, the grocer has to date only opened three stores in the vast region, all three in Bakersfield.

Merced is located between Fresno and Modesto. The city is about 45 miles from Fresno (to the south) and about 35 miles from Modesto (to the north).

Of course, it's hard to become a player in a market like the Central Valley if a grocer has stores completed but doesn't open them, as the Bakersfield and Fresno examples above indicate is the case for Tesco's Fresh & Easy.

Not opening a completed grocery store is seldom if ever done by U.S. food retailers. Having numerous empty store buildings that aren't producing sales or cash flow isn't considered to be prudent management in the food and grocery retailing industry, particularly for major chains.

For example, one would be hard-pressed to find a completed Wal-Mart store of any kind that doesn't have a definite opening date planned for it.

The same would be the case at Kroger, Costco, Safeway and virtually every other chain -- large or small -- we are aware of. It's just not an excepted practice. And most grocers rush to open a completed store rather than allow it to remain empty a day longer than they have to.

Linkage - Additional Related Stories:

>February 11, 2008: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Isn't the Only Food & Grocery Retailer With its Eyes on Bakersfield: Wal-Mart's Bakersfield Push and Central Valley, CA Strategy

>September 15, 2008: Wal-Mart Expanding its Discount Store-to-Supercenter Conversion Program As Part of its Strategy to Grab Even More Food and Grocery Sales Market Share

>December 29, 2008: Competitor News: Winco Foods to Expand in California and Nevada in 2009; Put Aggressive Focus on Central Valley, Northern California and Northern Nevada

>December 3, 2009: Tesco Opens its First Two California Fresh & Easy Stores Outside of Southern California in the Central Valley City of Bakersfield Today.]

>April 13, 2009: Despite Postponing its Northern California Launch Again Earlier This Year Tesco's Fresh & Easy Planning Third San Francisco Store; First Stockton Unit

>March 31, 2009: Despite Having Postponed its Northern California Launch Indefinitely; Tesco's Fresh & Easy Planning Third Store in Modesto, California

>November 12, 2008: Analysis: Hard Times at Fresh & Easy - Northern California Expansion to Be Postponed or Shelved Do to Economy; But its Only a Symptom Not the Cause

>July 23, 2008: Fresno, California Fresh & Easy Grocery Store to Be First in Chain to Include Local, Community and Neighborhood Design Elements and Features

>May 14, 2008: Fresh & Easy Buzz Exclusive: Tesco's Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market Plans to Open Five Stores In the Fresno, California Metropolitan Region

>May 15, 2008: Fresh But Never Easy: Tesco's Long But Rapid South-North March in the Nation-State of California

>November 20, 2008: Analysis & Commentary: Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market and Tesco's Lowered Expectations

>September 29, 2008: Special Report: Wal-Mart, Inc. Studying Second Small-Format Food and Grocery Store Concept; the 'Bodega' or Modern Version of the Corner Grocery Store

>August 8, 2008: Analysis & Commentary: Wal-Mart's Marketside As Part Of it's Multi-Format Category-Killer Strategy Spells Trouble For Tesco's Fresh & Easy

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