- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been rebuffed in attempts to expand into the District, yesterday extended its small-business assistance program to D.C. establishments.

Spokeswoman Rhoda Washington denied the move is related to smoothing the approval process for opening a store within the city’s boundaries. The retailer said Wal-Mart’s reach into the District reflects the fact that D.C. residents make up a large part of its customer and employee base at its Landover Hills store.

“It makes sense to partner with D.C.,” Ms. Washington said, calling the D.C.-Maryland line a “thin, gray line” that most people don’t recognize when they shop.

The five businesses, all in Ward 5, will get free in-store advertising and business assistance as part of the retailer’s Jobs and Opportunity Zones (JOZ) program. It was set up in February 2007 at Landover Hills and nine other Wal-Mart stores across the country, with many just outside major cities. Each quarter, the store selects five new businesses to help.

Prince George’s County businesses participated in Wal-Mart’s program last quarter. This quarter, the five D.C. stores include Bobby Q’s barbeque restaurant, Cafe Sureia coffee shop and Capital Construction Group LLC on 12th Street Northeast; Bubba’s Muscogee Restaurant on Rhode Island Avenue Northeast and Windows Cafe & Market on Rhode Island Avenue Northwest.

“We have to have a balancing act in how development grows in our community,” said Ward 5 Democrat Harry Thomas Jr., who recommended the businesses to Wal-Mart and announced them yesterday.

The businesses are 5 to 7 miles away from the Wal-Mart store. Ms. Washington said the JOZ businesses are typically within five miles from the stores, but the program includes D.C. establishments to recognize that about 60 percent of the store’s 450 associates are residents of the District.

Wal-Mart does not have a store in the District — Landover Hills is its first and only inside the Capital Beltway — but it has already faced opposition from the D.C. Council.

Mr. Thomas and fellow council members Phil Mendelson and Marion Barry introduced legislation in February 2007 that targeted big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart. The bill would require that retailers with stores larger than 75,000 square feet or a parent company with gross revenue of $1 billion or more pay employees a “living wage,” which at that time was determined to be $11.75 per hour. The bill was introduced to the Committee on Workforce Development and Government Operations.

Mr. Thomas said he didn’t interpret the business assistance, announced yesterday, as a way to ease negotiations to open a store in the city and that he’s not talking with the retailer about that now.

“I’m open to many opportunities for my ward,” he said, adding that he pursues any corporation or organization that offers assistance to his ward.

Mr. Thomas said that as the retail environment improves in the District, he thinks it’s “inevitable” that the retailer will try to open a store in the District someday.

Wal-Mart tried to open a store in 2004 in the Brentwood neighborhood, but scrapped those plans because the site didn’t meet store requirements.

Ms. Washington said the retailer is not eyeing specific store sites in D.C. now, but is “always interested in jurisdictions that provide further access to our customer base.”

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