By Kelley Atherton

Wescom News Service

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. -The Del Norte County Planning Commission unanimously approved Wal-Mart's expansion to a Supercenter on Wednesday night.

The Board of Supervisors Chambers was a full house for a public hearing before the vote.

Some people said they feared the expansion would hurt other local businesses.

Others, including the manager and assistant manager of the local Wal-Mart, said the store was not going to affect businesses any more than it already has, and would provide more jobs.

Before the public hearing commenced, William Fleishhacker, an attorney representing Robert A. Karn and Associates, engineers for the project, detailed plans to add more than 81,000 square feet, doubling the size of the existing store.

He said that the Supercenter would add 130 jobs, 60 percent of them full-time, and donate $30,000-$50,000 annually to the local community.

Gregg Ottman, an architect on this project, presented a slide-show depicting what the expanded store would look like. Ottman, who designed the Supercenter, said it would have a andquot;modern lookandquot; with earth-tone colors.

Planning Commission members said they'd like to see other options for the exterior design, which will require approval at a later date.

Environmental issues

After some discussion, Ernest Perry, director of the county Community Development Department, showed a map depicting the necessary 50-foot buffer between the expanded store and the Elk Creek tributary.

Eileen Cooper, representing Friends of Del Norte, said she was disappointed that options for a smaller expansion andquot;were not entertained in a serious manner.andquot;

Grant Gruber, a project manager with Michael Brandman and Associates who conducted the EIR, said environmental impacts from the expansion would be andquot;less than significant.andquot;

The property would be fenced off from the tributary to protect red-legged frogs (a threatened species), he said.

Cooper also mentioned that the expansion to a Supercenter would leave little room for Sutter Coast Hospital to grow.

andquot;I'm concerned about the hospital being boxed in - no pun intended,andquot; Cooper said, which incited some laughter from the crowd since Wal-Mart is referred to as a big-box store. andquot;There's no room for (hospital) expansion ? Another grocery store is not needed.andquot;

Loss of businesses feared

Several residents brought up the point that there are already several grocery and pharmacy options in Del Norte. A bigger Wal-Mart could drive smaller stores out of business, they said.

Ron Cole said he likes Wal-Mart, but he is concerned that a Supercenter would drive out downtown businesses. There were a lot more businesses before Wal-Mart ever came to town, he said.

andquot;I find this disquieting,andquot; Cole said, then suggested a study be done on how local businesses would be impacted.

andquot;The EIR doesn't address the issues adequately enough,andquot; Cole said.

Jeremy Stafford said he remembered when there were lots of businesses downtown and now there are a lot of andquot;for rentandquot; signs in windows.

andquot;I support Wal-Mart making money because it's America,andquot; he said. andquot;What will it do for Del Norte, for us?andquot;

Patti Pearcey, who owns The Bookcomber bookstore downtown, said she is worried about going out of business if Wal-Mart expands.

andquot;I can't compete,andquot; she said about Wal-Mart's discounted books. andquot;They'll have 250 books to chose from. They'll decide what you can have.andquot;

Pearcey said money going into Wal-Mart goes right out of Del Norte County. She also called for a study of how expansion would affect the local economy.

Kevin Loscotoff, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart in Northern California, countered that the Supercenter would benefit the community because it provides jobs that pay above minimum wage, with benefits. His main point was that Wal-Mart has the patrons to justify doubling the store's size.

andquot;22,000 people visit the Wal-Mart here on a weekly basis - they're visiting with their feet to save their hard-earned money,andquot; Loscotoff said.

Robert Boucher, manager of the local Wal-Mart, said a Supercenter could draw more people to the area -adding that people from Brookings, Coos Bay and Eureka, Calif., already frequent the local store.

andquot;In my opinion it would only enhance our community,andquot; Boucher said.

Planning Commission members each got a chance to comment before voting.

Commissioner Jack Reese said that while he's not a andquot;corporate guy,andquot; he thought expanding to a Supercenter wouldn't affect businesses any more than they already are.

Chairperson Ellen Brown said that Wal-Mart is currently one of the only options in the county for affordable clothes.

andquot;If Wal-Mart went out, there would be no place to buy jeans,andquot; she said. andquot;There is a need. I'm not sure who would fill it if it did go out.andquot;