- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It’s official.

Now that Wal-Mart’s applications have been filed formally with the D.C. office of planning, the battle over the retailer’s entry into the nation’s capital is joined in earnest.

The nation’s biggest retailer wants to build four stores in the city. One, in Ward 4, would replace a flea-market lot and a building plastered with fading green-and-white campaign posters for former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Another would be built in the “NoMa” area off the H Street Northwest corridor in Ward 6, near the U.S. Government Printing Office. The other two are strategically placed at gateways to the city — along East Capitol Street in Ward 7, where Mayor Vincent C. Gray lives, and on New York Avenue in Ward 5, home to Harry Thomas Jr., chairman of the council’s Committee on Economic Development.

The first D.C. Wal-Mart, at the busy intersection of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast, is slated for a groundbreaking this fall. The inner-city locations are part of a new era for the Arkansas-based company, which built its empire of rural and exurban locations far from the country’s major urban centers.

All told, Wal-Mart officials say, their four-store plan in the District could mean an estimated $10 million in tax revenue, hundreds of initial construction jobs and about 1,200 full-time jobs. To ease concerns of residents and other stakeholders, Wal-Mart plans to hold local job fairs for construction and store employees.

Company executives say the stores also would offer fresh produce, a direct nod to the concerns of people such as first lady Michelle Obama, who is on the front lines of battling childhood obesity. The local news website DCist.com also reported this week that Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest gun retailer, has promised not to sell guns and firearms at its D.C. sites.

To Wal-Mart critics, none of that matters. They use sharp words — “war,” “invasion” and “destruction of this city” — to describe the magnitude of the threat they say the company poses.

The critics are especially vocal in Ward 4, where Wal-Mart wants to replace a long-vacant car dealership site with a store at Georgia and Missouri avenues Northwest, a major crossroad surrounded by single-family homes and brimming with mom-and-pop retailers.

While some D.C. lawmakers who live in Ward 4 appear willing to work with Wal-Mart, some longtime residents and community organizers are dead-set against the retailer’s stores anywhere inside city limits. One effort is called “Wal-Mart Free DC”; another bills itself as “Ward Four Thrives.” Both groups count local businesses, residents and union members among their ranks.

These community organizers say they don’t even want to consider working out a deal with the company.

“There is no compromise. This is a war,” said Asantewaa Nkrumah-Ture, who once worked in the office of Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, Georgia Democrat.

Ms. Nkrumah-Ture made her comments after a screening of the film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” late last week at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ on North Capitol Street.

When a reporter asked several viewers at the screening whether there was a Plan B if Wal-Mart doesn’t deal with their concerns, one Ward 4 resident shot back, “Plan B?”

“There is no Plan B,” another woman in the group said.

About 70 people viewed the 2005 documentary, which captures activists and former Wal-Mart employees in U.S. and Asian communities complaining that the world’s largest retailer is anti-union, biased against women and harmful to local businesses and the environment.

Although the protests haven’t stopped Wal-Mart’s D.C. plans, the company and D.C. officials insist they are not ignoring critics’ concerns.

“There has not been enough focus on job creation and business development in this city and that will change in the Gray administration,” Mr. Gray promised last month when he named a new deputy director for planning and economic development.

Among lawmakers, Mr. Thomas and Ward 6 D.C. Council member Tommy Wells have been the most vocal in touting the jobs and affordable fresh produce that Wal-Mart could bring to areas suffering from high unemployment rates and a dearth of quality food options.

But the D.C. Council has no official stand on the applications, because no legislation is in the immediate offing. Unlike other recent major D.C. commercial projects, such as the new baseball stadium and some hotel projects that left lawmakers wrangling over tax breaks, Wal-Mart has no plans to seek any special subsidies or incentives on taxes from the city.

When asked specifically, “Does Wal-Mart plan to ask the city for such special considerations as tax breaks or money to help build any of the four stores?” a spokeswoman for the company offered a simple response: “No.”

Still, residents want details and will get an opportunity to ask for them at community meetings scheduled this week. The D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, which represents dozens of neighborhood groups, and the Capitol View Civic Association in Ward 7, where the unemployment rate stands at 19.7 percent, have scheduled Wal-Mart events.

Council member Michael A. Brown, who lives in Ward 4 and has attended several meetings, said much of the skepticism over Wal-Mart focuses on pay and the issue of “living wages.”

D.C. law sets the wage at $12.50 per hour, and Wal-Mart has said the company would offer “a competitive wage equal to or better than those offered by competitors, including unionized grocers.”

Company officials also said they are willing to develop charitable partnerships in the District, particularly with groups dealing with hunger and work-force development.

That is precisely where Mr. Brown, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Workforce Development, is focusing.

“There’s nothing to agree or disagree on because there’s nothing [legislatively] to take a position on,” Mr. Brown said. “Some of the neighborhoods are near but don’t abut the stores. The properties aren’t under public control and [Wal-Mart] has yet to ask for public assistance or tax abatements. But a community benefits package would get a binding package on everything from contracting to hiring and prevailing, living wages.”

Some families can’t wait to have convenient access to fresh produce and affordable groceries.

“Everyone can’t afford to shop at a Harris Teeter or Whole Foods,” Mr. Brown said.

Wal-Mart officials said they will continue meeting with D.C. stakeholders to hear their concerns and that, despite opposition, their plans remain on target.

“There will be a job fair held for construction jobs and another for the store,” said Jennifer Hubbard, a spokeswoman, adding that no dates have been set.

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