The old, empty Kmart on Victoria Avenue is shuttered and desolate, with hardly any signs of life on its side of the large shopping plaza; yet the space formerly inhabited by the retailer is getting plenty of attention from both sides of the political spectrum.

The fight over Measure C, the contentious ballot initiative some say could forever define Ventura’s business climate, will end on Election Day, when voters decide if “big box” superstores should be allowed in the city.

A yes vote for Measure C means supporting adoption of an ordinance that would prohibit any retail business larger than 90,000 square feet that devotes more than three percent of its sales floor to groceries and non-taxable items. Wholesale clubs are exempt.

The measure’s supporters don’t want supercenters anywhere in Ventura because they feel such stores breed crime, traffic, and do more to stifle the local economy by domineering small businesses and competing grocers.

But where Measure C’s ballot language doesn’t directly address Wal-Mart as its culprit, proponents use the corporation as valid reasoning behind their determined “Stop Wal-Mart” campaign, started when Wal-Mart leased out the vacant Kmart and announced plans to make its new home there.

“We didn’t just do this as an emotional response. We researched what Wal-Mart does to communities. It’s not good for our(s),” says Das Williams, a legislative analyst for CAUSE, and a key member of Livable Ventura.

The latter group is chaired by Nan Waltman, who decries Wal-Mart mostly for its perceived poor business model and reputation for treating employees badly.

“It’s not a level playing field with Wal-Mart,” she said.

On the Measure C playing field, the fight boils down to tangible numbers: the square footage that constitutes a big box supercenter.

Wal-Mart’s most recent application to the city’s design review committee, for a re-use of the former Kmart, requests a storefront maxed out at 98,000 square feet. That measurement still falls within the guidelines of the city’s Victoria Corridor Plan, which currently prohibits any retailer from exceeding 100,000 square feet in space.

It’s precisely why Alison Carlson, one vocal opponent to Measure C, calls the initiative “irrelevant” because supercenters are already barred by city law from setting up shop on Victoria Avenue to begin with.

“In no case would that Wal-Mart be applicable to Measure C,” she says.

Regardless, Waltman’s support of Measure C is precautionary. Without a ban on supercenters, she says, city codes like the Victoria Corridor Plan could be left open to change simply from a Ventura City Council quorum, allowing for stores to grow to supercenter size and beyond.

“This is a decision of the voters that the council cannot tamper with,” Waltman said.

Measure C, she notes, would also protect other grocery chains like Vons, Ralphs or Trader Joe’s — each of which are located on Victoria within a mile of the proposed Wal-Mart — from losing both business and employees.

Along with Carlson, opponents, who include three city council members, maintain that a standard-sized Wal-Mart can and will move to Victoria Avenue, regardless of Measure C, on terms of its lease. Those council members — Mayor Christy Weir, Neal Andrews and Carl Morehouse — also believe in giving consumers the right to shop where they choose.

But both Waltman and Williams say that they are worried about Wal-Mart moving in and slowly building out, piece by piece, until it can fulfill what the opponents allege to be Wal-Mart’s supercenter size.

“If C passes, they’re truly stuck at 90,000 square feet if they want groceries, and we’ve never seen a Wal-Mart do that,” Waltman said.

According to Mayor Weir, since Measure C is a citywide initiative, other large Ventura retailers, such as both Target stores, would be obligated to follow its rules. This could hurt business at the 142,868-square-foot Main Street Target, and the Pacific View Mall’s Target, which carries groceries and measures at nearly 205,000 square feet.

“They’re fine as long as they don’t change a thing,” Weir said.

To see the effects on business competition, traffic and crime Wal-Mart plays in the community, one need look no further than Oxnard, where a Wal-Mart has operated on Rose Avenue since 1992.

The Wal-Mart, according to Curtis Cannon, Oxnard’s community development director, now totals 174,227 square feet, having just completed a 27,000-square-foot renovation. Neighboring a VONS and a wholesale Sam’s Club in the same plaza, none of the stores, said Cannon, has ever entered into a “non-competition” business agreement with the other.

The Oxnard Police Department receives about one call a day from the Oxnard Wal-Mart, says David Keith, the department’s public information officer. The most common calls, he said, are for shoplifting, followed by parking lot fender benders or other incidents occurring in the vicinity of the plaza.

Whether Measure C welcomes a supercenter, a scaled-down Wal-Mart, or drives away the retailer altogether is yet to be seen until after Election Day. Williams, of CAUSE, is firm in believing that Ventura could do better in seeking out a better retailer.

“Ventura’s problem in land use is they don’t realize its value,” he said. “We should not be too desperate and take the first suitor to come along, so to speak.”   

paul@vcreporter.com