- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2011

D.C. officials and Wal-Mart announced a three-year, $3 million pilot program Thursday to provide 2,000 city residents with skills needed to succeed in retail, as the box-store giant continues to prepare for at least four locations in the nation’s capital.

Wal-Mart’s contribution will be split between the Community College of the District of Columbia (CCDC) and the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which will oversee a grant program to improve literacy, language and computer skills.

The program is the first of its kind for the Bentonville, Ark.-based corporation and is intended to cut back on the double-digit unemployment rate among city residents, particularly east of the Anacostia River.

“Right now, it’s a pilot program specifically for D.C.,” said Keith Morris, director of community affairs for Wal-Mart in its East Region.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray announced the program Thursday at the Department of Employment Services’ headquarters in Ward 7, which is also home to the Skyland Town Center that is considered a “viable” location for a fifth Wal-Mart store in addition to the quartet waiting to break ground.

Wal-Mart, whose stores are often greeted with skepticism about how they will affect surrounding areas, had already donated more than $2 million to various programs in the District, including job-training partnerships with the Urban Alliance and D.C. Central Kitchen.

It is still unclear when the four approved stores will be built, as they wend their way through the city’s approval process, according to Mr. Morris.

“We’d like to do it as soon as possible,” Mr. Gray said. “We’d like to get it over with.”

He said the city is not ready to talk about any additional requests of the corporation to benefit communities.

However, the mayor has openly indicated that the Skyland development would be his ideal choice for an additional store, joining approved sites at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Ward 5, Georgia and Missouri avenues in Ward 4, on New Jersey Avenue near First and H streets in Ward 6, and East Capitol and 58th streets in Ward 7.

The stores are in an “urban format” designed for the D.C. market. They are each 80,000 to 100,000 square feet — about half the Supercenter format — but still have a grocery and pharmacy.

On the educational front, DOES Director Lisa Mallory said the CCDC is creating a curriculum that will place participants in real-life retail situations that allow them to have “productive exchanges” with customers.

CCDC CEO Jonathan Gueverra said the program will be an innovative move away from “stale” methods of learning.

Although there is no stated guarantee the participants will land jobs with Wal-Mart or other stores when they finish the program, “They are expected to be hireable,” Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Gray said the program should also improve the overall skills of D.C. residents. A 2007 report found 37 percent of D.C. residents are “functionally illiterate,” meaning they can perform only simple literacy tasks. The rates were close to 50 percent in wards 7 and 8 and parts of Ward 5, officials said.

Unemployment in the District reached a seasonally adjusted rate of 10.4 percent in June, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said the city’s partnership with Wal-Mart is “a great step in the right direction.”

“An unemployment rate of over 9 percent in the city is absolutely unacceptable, and over 20 percent east of the river,” Ms. Lang said, noting many people in the room live or work in the District. “All of us should be absolutely embarrassed by those statistics.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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