- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said yesterday that its new Landover Hills store will be in one of 10 urban areas it will try to revitalize as it changes its focus from opening stores in suburban and rural areas to opening in major cities.

The store, the first inside the Capital Beltway, is scheduled to open early next month at the site of the Capital Plaza Mall on Route 450.

The Bentonville, Ark., company said the 10 stores, nearly all of which are on the outskirts of major U.S. cities, will select five small businesses each quarter for special treatment. The businesses will receive free advertising in the Wal-Mart store and in local newspapers, as well as assistance in business planning.

Wal-Mart said the store the Landover Hills location already had about 8,000 applicants for 320 jobs and its support of nearby businesses will help the communities prosper.

But Wal-Mart’s opponents said the program is merely a public relations ploy designed to smooth the way into urban areas.

“They say they’re going to help their competitors compete with them,” said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for the union-sponsored Wakeup Walmart.com. “Does anybody believe them?”

Nearly all of the areas in the program are just outside major cities where Wal-Mart has few, if any, stores inside the city limits the District (none), Atlanta (3), Pittsburgh (2), Cleveland (none), Chicago (1) and Fresno, Calif. (3). It’s also being implemented in Portsmouth, Va., near Norfolk; Richmond, Calif.; Indianapolis, and El Mirage, Ariz.

In many of these cities, and others, Wal-Mart has been met with so-called “anti-big-box legislation” city ordinances banning stores of a certain size or demanding that they pay a certain wage. A Chicago store opened last year only after Mayor Richard Daley vetoed anti-big-box legislation the City Council had passed. The company backed out of plans to open a Queens, N.Y., store after protests from the community.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, reintroduced legislation this month that would require any retailer whose parent company has more than $1 billion in revenue and has a store of more than 75,000 square feet to pay at least $11.75 an hour in wages and health benefits.

The legislation, which is now in committee, would likely apply only to retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Costco.

Mr. Mendelson said he would welcome Wal-Mart to the District “if they paid a living wage.”

“I think it’s great that Wal-Mart is finally looking at urban centers because their retail power has been very much a contributing factor to sprawl,” he said. “However, Wal-Mart has a reputation for undercutting competitors’ wages and such a race to the bottom does not make a healthy work force.”

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said it is trying to lead by example.

“It’s not so much to counter any resistance. It’s just the right thing to do,” said Don Frieson, vice president and regional general manager of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The 10 stores announced yesterday are part of an initiative, announced late last year, to open 50 stores in underdeveloped areas within two years.

“We can go into a community that perhaps, in some ways, is economically challenged, and help their redevelopment,” he said. “Landover Hills is a perfect example it was previously a shopping center and was neglected. We can reclaim it and move forward.”

Some community groups welcome the retailer. The Prince George’s County Economic Development Corp. was eager for the store to open.

“For the past three years, the county executive and the EDC have focused on bringing on more and better retail to the county and while our emphasis has been on high-end retail, we really think we need a diversity of retail types in order to address the needs of the county residents,” Kwasi Holman, president and chief executive officer of the economic development agency, said Friday. “Every success should be celebrated.”

Wal-Mart has 20 stores within 30 miles of the center of the District. The Landover Hills store will replace a Branch Avenue store in Clinton as the Wal-Mart closest to the District.

Mr. Frieson said Wal-Mart has no concrete plans to open additional stores in the Washington area, but the company is actively looking.

“We see there is a need in the Washington area,” he said. “This is a very competitive retail market. There is certainly a need for working families for everyday low prices. It fits perfectly.”

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