Beverages and More (BevMo), a regional chain of more than 100 stores, sells wine and liquor at discount prices and plans to open a new location in the former Chili's restaurant space if the commission approves a use permit. The strip mall, which faces the Caltrain tracks, backs up to El Camino Real and is already home to other chain stores, including Big 5 sporting goods, Staples office supplies and Lens Crafters.
Local liquor and wine merchants such as Beltramo's argue that the addition of a BevMo, which already has a location on El Camino Real in Redwood City, could be a devastating blow to them, especially in a tough economy.
The more important issue, in our view, is when and whether the city should support locally owned, independent businesses in the face of chain stores that might bring lower prices but threaten locally owned businesses. There is a clause in the governing ordinance that allows the commission to deny the permit if it finds the use "detrimental to the general welfare of the city." If the permit is denied, BevMo could appeal to the City Council, which would make the final decision.
There are plenty of reasons for the city to turn BevMo down. For example, over the years city surveys have consistently found that residents value shopping at businesses such as Beltramo's, Draeger's market, Kepler's Books and Magazines, Flegels furniture store, and others, rather than chain stores.
Hometown Peninsula, a shop-local group based in Menlo Park and chaired by independent bookseller Clark Kepler, notes that member businesses tend to spend more locally, while big box chain stores send their profits off to the home office in another state. Most local business owners and employees live in the community, which means their customers often can be their neighbors.
And there is another good reason to support local businesses. In just a few months, Menlo Park will begin final deliberations on a major "visioning plan" for El Camino Real and downtown areas. Planners aim to preserve the city's charm, character and small-town appeal. In arguments made in an unsigned flier sent out a few weeks ago, local liquor and wine retailers make that point, saying the city should not open the door to another liquor and wine outlet.
On the other hand, there are plenty of chain-owned stores already and distinguishing among prospective tenants is a slippery slope without any clear goal or policy. We think this is a debate worth having, and urge the commission to deny the permit so it can go before the full council for a policy discussion.
At the very least, the permit application will generate a healthy dialogue about whether the city is correct in protecting its small businesses from outside competition. As part of that discussion, we would urge local business owners, such as the Beltramos, to be open in making their case. Use of anonymous mailers serves neither the Beltramos nor the citizens of Menlo Park.