INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Wal-Mart Stores is not the people's choice here.
In a vote that could have statewide and possibly national implications, residents in this Los Angeles suburb voted not to allow Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., to have carte blanche to build a discount store or, ultimately, a supercenter on a 60-acre parcel of land without going through environmental, zoning and traffic studies.
With just under 10% of the city's 112,000 residents voting, a ballot measure that would have enabled Wal-Mart to avoid normal approval procedures was soundly rejected by a vote of 61% to 39%.
In a prepared statement, Bob McAdam, vice president, state and local government relations for Wal-Mart, said the company was disappointed "that a small group of Inglewood leaders, together with representatives of outside special interests, were able to convince a majority of Inglewood voters that they don't deserve the job opportunities and shopping choices that others in the L.A. area enjoy.
"It is a shame that a small number of voters have determined that more than 100,000 Inglewood residents will have to leave their community to enjoy the shopping opportunities that others have close to home."
He thanked those who supported Wal-Mart in the vote and said the company is committed "to finding ways to provide you and your families with access to convenient shopping and low prices. We look forward to serving all of our Inglewood customers at some other location in the future."
Pete Kanelos, Wal-Mart's spokesman in California, said Wal-Mart worked in good faith with the Inglewood City Council for nearly a year before circulating its petition to put the matter on the ballot. "We had every intention of taking this through the city, but after the city made it clear it was not willing to approve this project because it did not want to go against the wishes of organized labor, we realized we had to take additional measures," he said.
Emanuel Weintraub, president and chief executive officer of Weintraub Associates, Fort Lee, N.J., said if Wal-Mart had succeeded with the ballot measure, "it was a good strategy and tactic. After losing, Wal-Mart will probably carefully select another [locale] and try it again. If that doesn't work, they'll probably abandon it."
Wal-Mart has indicated it plans to open 40 supercenters in California over the next four to six years. It opened its first in La Quinta last month.
State legislators proposed two measures last week aimed at keeping Wal-Mart in check:
A bill that would require big-box stores larger than 75,000 square feet that sell groceries to reimburse state and local governments for the cost of providing public health care to employees -- a response to allegations Wal-Mart encourages employees to apply for public health benefits.
A bill that would require the box stores to pay for studies -- commissioned by local agencies, which would choose the firms conducting the studies -- to determine whether they harm local economies.
In Los Angeles, the city council passed an ordinance in 2001 regulating where supercenters could locate. It is in the process of drafting a complementary ordinance, which addresses economic development issues, that is expected to come up for a vote in early summer.
Inglewood is a middle-income city of 112,000 mostly African American and Hispanic residents. The parcel of land on which Wal-Mart wanted to build is a dilapidated parking lot located between Hollywood Park, a horse-racing facility, and the Forum, where the Los Angeles Lakers used to play basketball.
The proposal reached the ballot after the city council passed an ordinance last year banning construction of a supercenter by Wal-Mart, then rescinded its ban after Wal-Mart gathered approximately 65,000 signatures that qualified it for a special election in which it was the only issue.
The ballot -- Measure 04-A -- would have permitted Wal-Mart to build a shopping center the size of 17 football fields without conducting studies on environmental impact, zoning or traffic or holding public hearings; it would also have allowed the company to expand the discount store it planned to build there to a supercenter.
Opponents claimed passage of the measure would have set a precedent for cities across the U.S. by preempting local and state control over the development process and circumventing environmental review of major projects.
Richard Hastings, retail sector analyst for the Bernard Sands research firm, New York, said the vote in Inglewood reflected what he termed "Wal-Mart's continued mishandling of public relations." He said the retailer was at fault for not leveraging its positives enough, as well as for letting its opponents define the company as a ruthless behemoth. "Wal-Mart has failed to derail the harmful mental associations -- of low wages, labor displacement, class warfare, the big guy vs. the little guy," Hastings said.
According to Hastings, Wal-Mart's drive for voter referenda -- relatively easy to get in California vs. other states -- shows the company is trying to "buy its future" by setting legal precedents that allow it to sidestep local government bodies.
Going into last week's election, Wal-Mart was one for two in California this year, having won a referendum in Contra Costa County in Northern California while losing one in San Diego.
Keeping Score in California
Wal-Mart opened its first California supercenter in La Quinta last month. So far, about 15 to 20 ordinances and a handful of lawsuits have been filed in California opposing further supercenter expansion.