Wal-Mart here because of 1982 rezoning
By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
There could have been no Wal-Mart in Willows.
An obscure 1982 zoning change triggered a string of events that now provides tens of thousands of tax dollars to the city of Willows every year, and shapes the driving patterns of Glenn County consumers.
Reading through 14 years’ of Willows Journal microfilm, this reporter note occasional stories about zoning changes.
Development debates are often more abstract than concrete; the effects of any installation are in the future and as a result difficult to know with certainty.
This is even more true with zoning. If development stories concern possible futures; zoning stories deal with possible development, another level of abstraction.
Moreover, such articles are often confusingly vague to the uninitiated, filled with technical jargon like PD and A-3.
Still, minor zoning changes can have large impacts on the future of the county.
In November 1982, around 400 acres on I-5 north of Wood/Highway 162 were scheduled for rezoning from planned development to agriculture. The property owner, Manuel Gomez, objected that the planning department was recommending rezoning based on a “windshield inspection.”
No specific developments were planned; the only concrete concern was annexation should someone wish to develop.
Two weeks later, planning director was back with a new plan to only rezone 300 acres, a proposal Mr. Gomez was amenable to.
The last not rezoned included a then-empty parcel on the northwest corner of Highway 162 and Wood.
The property just sat there for a few years; Mr. Gomez was looking to sell the property, and had asked Mr. Melquist to alert him to any potential buyers.
Then-city manager Russ Melquist recalls what happened.
“I’ll never forget that day,” he says.
“It was raining outside, and this guy, Horace Rosalia, came in. He had a watch fob, a Caterpillar tractor. I thought he was just trying to get out of the rain.
“I had a plaque for working in Tiberon, and he says, ‘I live there’ – down in Marin County. I know this guy.”
“He wanted to buy some property.”
Mr. Melquist gave Mr. Gomez his name and number. Three weeks, the two showed up to city hall together to announce the sale.
All that changed hands were a few hundred acres of farmland, a property deed, and some money.
Until 1992 – when Wal-Mart came to town, looking for a parcel of property to build a store on.
“The first thing I thought was that they made a mistake,” Mr. Melquist laughs. “Thought Willows was sixty thousand people, not six.”
“They were very reticent to say who they were. In fact, they didn’t say who they were.”
He laughs again.
“They were concerned about K-Mart finding out.”
Mr. Rosalia’s property was perfect for the task. But Mr. Melquist had it on good sources that if the deal on the Rosalia place fell through, Wal-Mart would go about 10 miles up or down I-5.
“I think they would have ended here in any case, either in Williams or Orland.”
That’s a long chain of events – the change in rezoning plans, the Gomez to Rosalia connection though Mr. Melquist, the Rosalia-Wal-Mart deal, approval of the site by the planning commission.
Any break, and there would likely have be no “Always Low Prices, Always” on the plot.
And perhaps then, none in Willows, or even Glenn County, at all.
This reporter mentions the story to Mr. Melquist’s longtime acquaintance, former county auditor Joe Sites, who shares his own recollections from an economic development study of Fresno he did in college.
Mr. Sites notes the large random element in economic development, giving the example of one of the biggest employers in Fresno who located there because of an empty warehouse, and another because it was close to the owner’s mother.
“There is no rhyme or reason to it,” he says.