Calif. Voters Reject Wal-Mart Supercenter

4/7/04 - By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Voters in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood on Tuesday rejected by a 2-1 margin a ballot measure that would have allowed Wal-Mart to build a sprawling shopping center in the heart of their town.

In voting down the referendum, residents appeared to have taken their cue from elected officials in working-class Inglewood, who fought bitterly to keep Wal-Mart from building a supercenter there, despite the promise of 1,200 jobs and millions of dollars in sales tax revenue.

"This was a major victory," said Jerome Horton, a state assemblyman representing Inglewood. "This was a test site for Wal-Mart. This would have set a national precedent and developers all over the nation were watching to see whether or not a developer could exempt themselves from complying with local laws. This was a much bigger issue than just jobs."

Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott downplayed the vote in an interview with Reuters following a Little Rock Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites) meeting in Arkansas on Wednesday.

"It's a single store," he said. "We have lost votes on single stores before, and I would assume in the future we will have some we lose."

With all 29 precincts reporting, election returns showed 33.8 percent of voters in favor of Measure 04-A and 66.1 percent opposed. Some 3,000 absentee ballots remained uncounted, but a spokeswoman for the Inglewood city clerk said those votes were unlikely to change the result.

The Inglewood City Council had prompted Wal-Mart to appeal to the voters by passing a law to thwart the world's largest retailer and its "big-box" shopping center -- which would have occupied a plot of land the size of 17 football fields -- on the grounds that it would put local mom-and-pop stores out of business and pay lower wages to its employees.

Wal-Mart officials said the opposition to their supercenter was driven by labor unions, who saw the discount retailer as a threat and contributed heavily to Inglewood officials' campaigns.

They said the proposed supercenter exceeded city planning standards and would have provided badly needed jobs and low-priced goods to the city, whose residents are mostly black and Hispanic.

Opponents of Measure 04-A, who included four of Inglewood's five council members as well as religious leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson (news - web sites) and Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, said the ballot initiative was a bid by Wal-Mart to bully its way past the city's democratic review process.

They had vowed to fight the shopping center in court if Measure 04-A passed.

But Mayor Roosevelt Dorn, one of the few Inglewood officials supporting the measure, said opponents were turning away 1,200 jobs and an estimated $5 million in sales tax revenue and criticized outsiders such as Jackson for interfering in the city's business.

"He's a hired gun who comes in here to tell us not to pass the measure," Dorn told local KCAL-TV. "He didn't bring any jobs. He didn't bring any sales tax revenue. He just brought himself." (Additional reporting by Steve Barnes in Little Rock)