Wal-Mart lays political groundwork for D.C. stores
After years of abortive efforts, Wal-Mart finally appears poised to make its entry into the District of Columbia. The world's largest retailer appears ready to take advantage of a favorable political climate and a new willingness to increase wages, meeting with city officials in recent days to discuss opening as many as four stores.
The news comes less than five months after Wal-Mart struck a deal with Chicago labor and community groups, clearing the way for a passel of new "urban format" stores in that city. Reports have popped up in recent weeks about Wal-Mart exploring other inner-city locations across the country.
Now, key District legislators, lured amid an economic downturn by the prospect of more jobs and low-priced goods for constituents, are at least willing to give Wal-Mart a chance. The retailer is seriously considering deals that would place smaller, grocery-focused stores at four city locations -- at the Capitol Gateway development at the city's eastern corner in Ward 7; at the Curtis Chevrolet site on Georgia Avenue in Ward 4; next to Gonzaga High School in Ward 6, near the Northwest One development area; and at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Ward 5.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), at the vanguard of the council's liberal wing, didn't play tough with the retailer in an interview this morning.
Wells said he's quite aware of the many arguments against the retailer -- low wages, no benefits, opposition to unions, predatory effect on small local businesses -- but he said he's "keeping an open mind."
District residents, he argued this morning, have a right to low, low prices as much as the suburbanite. "One of the arguments about gentrification and displacement, it's not just about the cost of housing, it's about the cost of groceries and other goods," he said.
Especially in becoming a grocery vendor, he said, "Wal-Mart may have a role in the city."
Council member Harry Thomas Jr., perhaps the single most reliable pro-labor vote on the council, is also assuming a soft stance for the moment.
"My No. 1 concern is ensuring we have full-time jobs and labor-based pay rates," he said. "The bottom line for me is bringing 800 jobs to the city." Thomas said he'd be meeting with labor leaders soon to discuss the idea.
Note that Thomas said "labor-based pay rates" and not "union jobs." Wells said it was his "understanding" that Wal-Mart was ready to agree to a Chicago-style labor deal to ease its way into town. The Chicago deal reportedly will start workers at $8.75 an hour with raises guaranteed a year after that. But that's still short of "living wage" standards, and far short of what workers in Safeway and Giant stores -- organized by the United Food and Commercial Workers -- make.
But union support is not monolithic. As much as the grocery workers might resent Wal-Mart's entry, the building trades, with the prospect of hundreds of construction jobs on the new developments, might be willing to support a deal -- as happened in Chicago.
Make no mistake: Thomas & Co. love the idea of bringing jobs to his ward, loves the idea of bring new retail and community amenities to his neighborhoods, but they don't want this blowing up in their face. Thomas said he's asked Wal-Mart reps to quickly conduct a telephone poll, then he plans to meet with community groups as soon as next week.
Thomas noted that Wal-Mart is not seeking any sort of city subsidy for its ventures -- in keeping with its practice elsewhere in the country. Furthermore, the sites under consideration appear to allow "matter of right" development -- meaning no additional, potentially contentious zoning changes would be necessary.
Some members are still treading carefully, however: Yvette Alexander (D-Ward
4 7) said that the new store "could be a great thing, but what have they done in the community?" she asked.
"Some residents want it, some residents don't," she said. "There are more big-box retailers than Wal-Mart."
| November 17, 2010; 3:35 PM ET
Categories: The District
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