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Food Fight

Is trouble in store for Cotati grocers?

By Paula Harris

AS THE COUNTDOWN to the Great Cotati Food Fight--also known as the Measure F ballot initiative--ticks toward the Nov. 4 election, some residents are questioning Lucky's campaign tactics.

The measure is spearheaded by Cotati's only major grocery, Oliver's Market, to bar or reduce the size of a huge proposed Lucky market combo-store. Now a slick, pro-Lucky campaign flier, complete with a postage-paid return card and recently mailed to all Cotati households, claims that Measure F--which would prohibit commercial retail occupying more than 43,000 square feet of gross floor area in an effort to protect the smalltown character of this hamlet of 6,500--is designed only "to protect one business owner's monopoly," a thinly veiled reference to Oliver's owner, Steve Maass.

While the flier--paid for by Cotati Taxpayers for Responsible Planning and sponsored by American Stores Properties Inc.--doesn't specifically mention Maass by name, Oliver's general manager, Tom Scott, contends the flier unfairly characterizes Maass as a "greedy" businessman out for his own interest.

"All the material directed at Steve as a greedy entrepreneur trying to protect his [supposed] monopoly in Cotati is untrue," blasts Scott. "Labeling Steve as a greedy guy is a misconception."

Scott also complains that among the six reasons the mailer lists detailing why Measure F is bad for Cotati is an economic analysis included in the project's environmental impact report that states that Oliver's Market will survive. "But the independent economic analysis is not even finished," says Scott. "How is it in the hands of Lucky when it's not even done?"

He adds that the multiple-paged flier notes that the authors of Measure F have spent "tens of thousands of dollars for political consultants, lawyers, and 'volunteers' in an attempt to block fair competition"--a hypocritical statement, according to Scott.

"They sent the mailer to everyone in Cotati, and it's slick. How much does it cost to have that professionally produced?" he asks.

Of course, Oliver's Market does have an interest in keeping out hefty, big-box competition. Scott says, Oliver's has spent $16,000 on the Measure F campaign, mainly for lawyers to draft the measure and for a political consultant. He anticipates spending an additional $5,000 to $10,000 before the election.

During an interview from the Oakland division office, Lucky Stores Inc. spokesperson Judie Decker declined to answer specific questions relating to the flier and has referred all inquiries to Terri Dutra, treasurer of Cotati Taxpayers for Responsible Planning, a local group supporting the new Lucky.

Dutra, a local bookkeeper and 20-year Cotati resident, says that she contacted Lucky to get financial backing for printing campaign literature. "I really struggled with that," she says. "Once you take money, in some people's eyes you lose your validity, but I didn't have the money."

As of Sept. 26, Dutra says, Lucky had given her group $14,000, adding that she has spent $4,000 so far to produce the first flier. The group is planning to distribute two additional fliers.

The first flier states that without the property and sales taxes generated by the proposed Lucky, "the city could be forced to impose additional parcel taxes or further cut public services, and Cotati's independence as an incorporated city could be threatened." Dutra says that information is not based on any specific report, but rather on "general basic knowledge about city government."

"If a city can't balance its budget, it has to go back to the citizens, and we've been in the red a number of years," she adds.

Dutra has solicited about 30 people to help her, "not based on positive or negative [feedback] about Lucky or Oliver's," she states. "I made it clear, if there was a vendetta around Oliver's, I wasn't interested."

Still, the flier argues that Measure F will prohibit competition, resulting in higher prices and limited selection. "Lucky is backing us, and we had some argument with some of their script," Dutra admits, adding that she and another resident, Pat Gilardi, had written the ballot argument and rebuttals by themselves.

AS FOR QUOTING the draft EIR before it is complete, Dutra says, she mistakenly used and distributed information from the first draft instead of the final draft, which is due this week.

Dutra, who says she is donating her time to this project and is not being paid by Lucky, also reveals that she doesn't know much about the proposed Lucky store, but is really fighting the 43,000-square-foot limit sought by Measure F. "It's clear we need to get a tax base of some commercial development in the town to support the homes we've built," she explains. "You don't arbitrarily plan a city by picking a number for square footage for all development."

The controversial combo-store, proposed for the north end of Old Redwood Highway, would include a Sav-On Drugs (Lucky's pharmacy subsidiary), a bank, and a bakery.

Tom Scott complains that the proposed store--including those businesses--is 65,300 square feet. "To date, it would be the largest Lucky store in Northern California, in Cotati, which is considered the smallest town in Sonoma County," he observes.

But Judie Decker, speaking for Lucky Stores, says the notion that this will be the biggest Lucky store in the region is a misconception. She says the corporation has five combo-stores (in Oakland, Hollister, San Jose, Elk Grove, and Tracy) and three more in the works. She says the average size for the combo-stores (not freestanding Lucky markets) is around 50,000 square feet. "This is for a full-service facility, including a drugstore, but [the size] varies from site to site," she explains, adding that Lucky had been willing to reduce the size of the Cotati store to 54,000 square feet, but no less than that.

Scott says Measure F's authors chose a 43,000-square-foot limit because Safeway had proposed that size store in Santa Rosa--bigger than six out of seven Lucky stores in Sonoma County.

"It's never been about not wanting more retail business in Cotati," says Diane Glotzer, Lucky opponent and 18-year Cotati resident. "Growth is not a bad thing--we want the city to thrive--but this store far exceeds the size of anything else in Cotati. It seems inappropriate."

Meanwhile, the giant grocery conglomerate, whose parent company is based in Salt Lake City, is hyping a chirpy, mom-'n'-pop corner-store image in Sonoma County with a new radio jingle--complete with a folksy, guitar-strummin' James Taylor sound-alike--that touts Lucky as a down-home, feel-good store.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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