By Stan Lynch
Walmart is coming to Burbank — like it or not. The good news is most people like it, and realize that Walmart will bring jobs and increased revenue to the City of Burbank. And then there were the folks who don’t like Walmart.
A small handful of protestors gathered in the parking lot of the former Great Indoors store, as several hundred Burbankers attended the Open House. Staffed by Walmart employees, the event was designed to give community members a chance to learn about the giant retailer, and ask questions.
Mayor Jesse Talamantes was there, as were Councilmembers Gary Bric and Dave Golonski. Careful not to appear to take sides, they didn’t have much to say. Bric noted, “I’m here as a resident, just to listen,” adding, “I recommended they (Walmart) have public outreach, and this is the first event.”
The number one concern that I heard folks asking about was “traffic.” Anyone who has been to the Empire Center knows that traffic is already a problem. Victory Place is a bottleneck that snarls traffic around Costco. The widening of the Golden State Freeway to accommodate car pool lanes also includes plans to add an off ramp to facilitate access to the Empire Center. A new, longer railroad bridge over Victory Place will allow the street to be widened to accommodate more traffic — eventually. It will be a few more years before everything is completed.
One man thought Walmart should help pay for improvements to the streets to alleviate the problems that have existed since the Empire Center opened years ago. He didn’t mention asking Target, Best Buy, Lowes, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse, Costco and other stores in the center to pay, just Walmart. Granted, Walmart will undoubtedly attract lots of customers, but so do the others stores in the successful shopping center.
Several people voiced concern that there won’t be enough parking for the store. Matt Smith, Sr. Real Estate Director for Walmart, explained “The Empire Center is designed for the parking needs of the entire center.” When asked, Smith said there were no plans to build a parking structure on the site.
When asked the same questions, Mayor Talamantes noted that in a commercial building, the number of parking spaces is dictated by the square footage of the building. The site is zoned for a large retail business, so the City Council cannot stop Walmart from opening a store there.
Apparently the store will be a regular Walmart. “The site is relatively small for a Super Center,” said Ellen Berkowitz of Walmart “It will be comparable to the Porter Ranch store.”
That location has some grocery items, but it is not as large as the Walmart Super Center in Santa Clarita. Those two locations seem to attract customers from Burbank. Walmart has already announced that the Burbank store would not be selling liquor. Groceries will probably occupy only 20 per cent of the store’s space.
One enthusiastic Walmart supporter was Cece Heppes, a 68-year Burbank resident. “Good, it’s super. Walmart is great,” said Heppes, adding, “The mall uptown is dying away, there will be more to shop for here.” Her sentiments were echoed by Lynn Schwenneker, a Burbank resident since 1941. “Walmart is a good thing to have here. The space is perfect for them.”
Rachel Wood, a 10-year resident of Burbank feels differently. “Burbank is not a Walmart community.” She complained that everything in their stores is made in China.
To verify that claim, we checked on a display at the event featuring a few environmentally friendly “green” products sold at Walmart.. Not surprisingly, the compact florescent bulbs were indeed made in China, as were the rechargeable batteries on display. The shipping labels made with recycled paper were, however, made in Mexico. A tube of Pantiene hair product was clearly marked “Made in the USA.”
Another favorite claim by those opposed to Walmart, is that it destroys the small businesses in town. Despite living here all my life, I’m hard pressed to find any small businesses that would be affected by a Walmart in town. Stationery stores were driven out of business years ago by Office Depot and Staples. Mom and pop grocery stores have been gone even longer, pushed out by the large chains. I seriously doubt that Walmart is going to put much of a dent in sales at Costco, and if anything it will probably make Target and Kmart more competitive.
I, like most folks in Burbank who occasionally shop at Walmart, will be glad to not have to drive 20 miles or more to get to a Walmart. I’m just unhappy that due to the permit process and remodeling of the building, they don’t expect to open until January 2013.