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It's a Wally world, Atascadero 

Amid a sea of flailing paper fans bearing the Walmart moniker and beaming faces sometimes mimicking the corporation’s smiley logo, the Atascadero City Council unanimously threw its support behind the long-debated Walmart and Del Rio Road Annex project.

The development has been nearly seven years in the making, and has drawn the ire of residents concerned about potential impacts on local small businesses and traffic congestion, as well as support from those who want to stuff their blue baskets to the brims with low-priced merchandise.

The approved project would also allow for development of a separate 10,000-square-foot commercial annex next to the Walmart, as well as a 44-home residential development at El Camino Real and
Del Rio Road.

In an emotional meeting that lasted more than five hours—with about three hours of public comment—roughly 50 residents put in their two cents about the project. Approximately three-quarters sang its praises, saying the project would bring in much-needed jobs, and would preclude residents from having to drive to Paso Robles to get their shopping fix.

“You guys will go down in history … no one will accuse you of rushing to a judgment,” resident Chuck Cooper told the council members. “These progressive terrorists have delayed the project for seven years and thank goodness for Walmart to stay with it.”

“It’s critical that we enhance our tax base and that’s exactly what we’re doing here,” resident Ray Johnson said. “There’s a lot of fear mongering going on, but staff has worked hard to mitigate the concerns of the people—many of them originating somewhere else, from the anti-Walmart community.”

Among the concerns that the anti-Walmart community raised were dipping about $1.5 million deep into the city’s restricted sewer fund, delays for other road-improvement projects until the Del Rio Road/Highway 101 interchange is complete, as well as dedicating taxpayer money to road development that has yet to get the blessing of Caltrans.

“We’re being shown the apple, but not the worm—and that is the financial problem,” said resident Livia Kellerman.

Of course, the big concern is that Walmart could possibly overrun local
mom-and-pop shops.

Speaking to that, city project manager Grant Gruber reported that staff looked at a handful of business categories and determined that a local Walmart would not cut into their market, or at least that other merchandise-oriented outlets such as K-Mart would be able to weather any potential losses. In fact, Gruber said, a Walmart could actually attract business toward existing restaurants and encourage specialty retailers to open shop in nearby vacant spaces.

Some residents opposed to the project seemed resigned that the council would inevitably bow to Walmart, yet many clung to the hope that they could sway officials to force the retail giant to fund a larger share of the interchange. A cost-sharing plan has Walmart putting up roughly $2.2 million of an estimated $4.5 million bill for the necessary road improvements to the area.

At the onset of the meeting, council members seemed to set the tone when they each reported that of the “hundreds” of e-mails and phone calls received from residents, around “90 to 95 percent” were in support of bringing Walmart to A-Town.

While the Walmart and the annex are separate projects, they were considered together, as their impacts are related.

Walmart could be open for business as soon as 2014.

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