Big box bill opposition louder

More than 150 people filled council chambers and the first floor hallways of the historic County Building yesterday for a hearing on Kaua‘i County Council Bill 2203 — better known as the ‘big box bill.’

While there appeared to be an equal number of Bill 2203 supporters and opponents showing their colors with purple and blue T-shirts, respectively, the overwhelming majority of speakers opposed the measure. Of the first 28, only six expressed support for the measure, identifying concerns about preserving Kaua‘i’s rural identity and conserving energy by shopping locally.

Opponents addressed the benefits of new big box stores and expansions to current stores such as increased competition and lower prices.

While most who spoke out against the bill also voiced support for a 66,000-square-foot addition to Wal-Mart, the two are not directly related.

“(The bill) is not about a particular brand, it’s about the size,” Kaua‘i County Council member Jay Furfaro told one speaker — a message that was reiterated a few times throughout the meeting.

In fact, the legislation proposes to limit all retail or wholesale establishments to 75,000 square feet in resort, commercial and industrial districts through a zoning amendment.

The current Wal-Mart, Kmart and Costco already exceed that size limit.

A recurring theme at the meeting was the difficulty of making ends meet on Kaua‘i and the relief a lower-priced grocery store could provide.

Kim Handy, a resident who moved from Michigan a few years ago, said she recently paid $3 for a jar of mayonnaise at Wal-Mart, compared to $6 at another store. Handy noted how she used the savings to pay bus fare for one of her children, buy a beverage for her son and purchase a candy bar from a kid raising funds for his baseball team.

“It makes a huge difference for the bottom line for the average person on the island,” she said tearfully.

Some supporters of the bill argued that its failure would result in the end of choice for consumers by ensuring only big box shopping options. But opponents pointed to the success of retailers that responded more than a decade ago to such stores as Kmart and Wal-Mart by catering to niche markets and offering specialty items.

Many also noted a drop in gas prices island-wide after Costco’s arrival and the continued success of Ace Hardware following Home Depot’s opening.

Derek Kawakami said he favors the bill because it is a step toward preserving “vast open spaces” for his generation and his children’s.

“If we lose it today, it’s gone forever,” Kawakami said. He added that the bill doesn’t prohibit new competition, rather it sets parameters for growth.

But Suzanne Woodruff, a Kaua‘i resident since 1994, could not have disagreed more, calling the measure “unconstitutional.”

“I consider this bill a massive government intrusion into privacy,” she said. “This bill will provide economic and competitive advantage to the stores that are already here.”

Michael Akro, a part-time resident who spends half the year in San Francisco, defended his right to fair prices whether on the island or the Mainland.

“Local stores gouge us and defend their right to do so by saying they are local,” Akro said. “We’re all local.”

Robert Hamada, a Wailua Homesteads resident born and raised on Kaua‘i, cautioned the crowd to take off the rose-colored glasses when considering the small-business era of the past.

“Everybody romanticizes the mom-and-pop stores” Hamada said. “They survive for themselves and by themselves.”

Wal-Mart Senior Public Affairs Manager Kevin McCall introduced a survey that he said showed the community’s support for an expansion.

The poll, conducted in March by Honolulu-based SMS Research, found that 56 percent of the 375 registered voters interviewed either strongly or somewhat favored building a Supercenter. According to McCall, there is a 5 percent margin of error.

“It is important for elected officials to know what the numbers are,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

McCall noted that Hawai‘i is one of three states without a Supercenter.

The top-ranked Fortune 500 company is shifting its focus to groceries, McCall added, estimating that there is a 50-50 ratio of Wal-Marts to Supercenters in the U.S.

Following the meeting, the council’s Planning Committee will review the bill, taking into consideration yesterday’s public comment and amending the bill as it sees fit.

Bill 2203 will then return to the full council for a vote, though Furfaro said it is unclear when that will take place.

The Planning Committee is chaired by Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura, who did not attend the public meeting. Councilman Ronald Kouchi was also absent.

A bill to limit the size of retail establishments was first introduced by Mayor Bryan Baptiste last October after Wal-Mart submitted an application to expand the month before. Three councilmembers followed the mayor’s lead with similar measures, Furfaro said.

Bill 2203 is the product of the previous bills. Prior to public comment, the bill required a first reading, which took place March 15.

• Blake Jones, business writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com.

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