Debate Over Possible Wal-Mart Opening in New York City Continues

Anti-Wal-Mart protester in Lower Manhattan. The protester is using blue tape as an ironic comment on Wal-Mart's "blue light" savings specials. Wal-Mart's opponents contend that the retail giant will harm consumers and works if it is permitted to open a store in New York City. Image (C) NYJWJ, 2011.

NEW YORK – Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, known for its megastores in suburbs and smaller towns, has been rebuffed by residents and union activists in New York and other large cities across the United States. But buoyed by a successful incursion into Chicago last year, it is now trying again to stake a claim in the New York City retail market.

However, on February 17th, 2011 at the latest in a series of public hearings attended by some of Wal-Mart’s most vocal critics, it declined to send a representative to speak on its behalf. Instead, two men, who declined to identify themselves, distributed folders at the hearing with the Wal-Mart imprint on them. They contained a list of polling data suggesting that citywide, union members, consumers and small businesses overwhelmingly welcomed Wal-Mart.

The company says it will not take part in any hearings until every national retail chain operating in the city is subjected to similar scrutiny. Stephen Restivo, Walmart’s community affairs director, said: “I don’t recall a similar hearing in the history of New York City in terms of being focused on one business,” he said.

So why has the world’s largest retailer so far failed to open a single store here?

“Wal-Mart can enter without . . . any permission by the city,” explained Tom Angotti, professor of urban studies at Hunter College. [In that case, why hasn’t it opened a store? You posed a key question, yet you don’t actually answer it in this piece.] He noted that there are laws the City could pass that would keep Wal-Mart out, but such legislation would affect all the major retailers in the City.

The political debate is heated. Councilman Charles Barron, who represents East New York, called Wal-Mart a “plantation of retail slavery.” Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the hearing organizers, said that “This is class warfare!,” a statement that drew sustained applause from the audience.

Wal-Mart is promising to create jobs at a time when citywide unemployment stands at 8.3%. And east New York has some of the highest crime and unemployment rates in the city. Up to 60% of young men (ages 18-25) are unable to find work, according to Chris Banks, the founder and director of East New York United Concerned Citizens, a local community group.

Mr. Banks strongly supports Wal-Mart. “My decision to support Wal-Mart is solely based on the fact that in the past eight, nine years I have not seen any economic growth in the community or leadership on it.” To Wal-Mart’s critics, Mr. Banks says, “I don’t see anybody else creating jobs. If they can bring jobs, I’m going to support that.”

Mr. Restivo stated that a Wal-Mart store creates, on average, 300 jobs in a community. “Our wages and benefits are as good if not better than those at our competitors,“ he added.

City Councilman Eric Ulrich, the lone Wal-Mart supporter at the Council hearing, said, “In this economy there’s no such thing in as a bad job. I don’t think it’s the government’s role to stand in the way of economic development.”

However, Wal-Mart’s critics are not accepting Mr. Ulrich’s or Mr. Restivo’s reasoning. “This whole argument, that we need competition and we need Wal-Mart doesn’t go together. Wal-Mart is a monopoly,” said Mr. Angotti. Critics assert that Wal-Mart kills three jobs for every two it creates. Mr. Restivo disagreed with these claims: “you’ll see small, medium and large businesses coexisting” around any New York City Wal-Mart store.

Chants of “We want jobs!” went up from the few pro-Wal-Mart demonstrators who congregated outside of the hearing. Several of these pro-Wal-Mart protesters said that they traveled outside of the City to shop at Wal-Mart. The unemployed among them said they would apply to work at Wal-Mart if opened a store in East New York. A larger crowd of anti-Wal-Mart protesters stood in front of the building where the hearing was held, chanting “Wal-Mart cheats, Wal-Mart hates, Wal-Mart discriminates!”

Pro-Wal-Mart demonstrator Lawrence Anderson said that he was supporting Wal-Mart “because we need jobs, lower cost products [and] jobs.” Some of his fellow demonstrators said they were unemployed and would gladly apply to work at an East New York Wal-Mart store. Mr. Banks echoed this sentiment in a phone interview: “at the end of the day, the people in East New York care the most about their wallets.”

Mr. Angotti believes that precedent for national retailers coming here favors Wal-Mart: “In the last ten years . . . the [mayor’s office] has moved more and more to become the strong advocate of private developers. They have been able to overwhelm the opposition with their propaganda and their funding.”

The outcome of this fight ultimately comes down to whether Wal-Mart decides to open a store here or not. Mr. Restivo said that Wal-Mart has not yet committed itself to opening a store here and that it is “evaluating” its options in the Greater New York metropolitan area.

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