Walmart in Brooklyn: the debate heats up

Months of debate over the potential arrival of a Walmartsuperstore to New York City – specifically, Brooklyn – came to ahead last week as advocates on both sides gave passionate, oftenemotional testimony to NY City Council members.

The nearly four hours of testimony was, at times, drawn out and itwasn’t until more than halfway through that the pro-Walmart voiceswere heard; but for those who stuck around, the arguments made onboth sides were powerfully revelatory. Unfortunately, most people -including the union workers and residents who gathered beforehandin front of City Hall before marching to the hearing site – did notstick around, having to return to their jobs or the task of tryingto get one.

On one side were the local business owners, community leaders andsocial scientists using statistics, personal anecdotes andWalmart’s track record with allegedly low wages, union busting,community homogenization and charges of discrimination toillustrate all the harm they contend a superstore could bring.Countering that were residents, entrepreneurs and communityadvocates who either saw Walmart as a job goldmine or just anotherbusiness to serve customers in a long line of big box stores.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn started the hearing with a rebukeagainst Walmart for its absence at the hearing and its argumentthat it is just like any other big box chain. Walmart is like noother company in the world. No other company has the revenue powerand size to move the market the way it does. … In Chicago,studies found business in immediate proximity to Walmart had a 40percent chance of going out of business [and] a quarter ofcompeting businesses close within a year of a Walmart opening. …For every two jobs it creates, three jobs are lost in theneighborhood … We’ve fought this battle before, and New York Cityhas won.

A community divided was one of the effects of not having Walmartrepresentation at the day’s proceedings. Some, including citycouncilmembers, saw a business behemoth unwilling to face publicscrutiny, while others saw it as powerful leaders and union forcesholding a prejudiced and stacked court, unwilling to allow theretailer to defend itself.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already come out in support of theretailer’s presence on the grounds that New York needs to be bigbusiness friendly.

Courting the People of Brooklyn

Walmart hasn’t been silent on the issue, however, choosing tochannel all of its efforts into appealing to Brooklyn residentsthrough direct mail, radio ads, street petitions and awebsite.

Charles Fisher is one of those people whose concerns werealleviated by attention from the mega-retailer. The founder of theHip Hop Summit Youth Council, a group dedicated to providingguidance to young people with designs on the entertainment andmusic industry, he reached out to Walmart to find out how theyintended to treat the East New York, Brownsville and Canarsiecommunities if they set up shop there. After a trip to Walmartheadquarters in Bentonville, Ark. To speak with executives, many ofhis fears were allayed.

We drilled [CEO] Bill Simon because we knew we had to since if wedidn’t, we might come back and end up in a body bag, Fishertestified to councilmembers. They promised us less recidivism [andbenefits like] paying for worker’s higher education. If Walmartcomes here and they lied to us, [we’ll make sure] they’re going tobe running out of the city.

Another Brooklynite who testified in support of Walmart was AnthonyHerbert, the volunteer coordinator of a local effort called Walmart2 NYC.

Be competitive. Make me want to come to your store. There’s agreat deal of opportunity for jobs, quality food choice, and freshfood. There’s got to be some sacrifices for the greater good. Oursociety has to grow, he explained.

To David Galarza, communications associate with Civil ServivceEmployees Association Local 1000, which represents about 18,000state workers, Walmart represents the worst practices of big boxstores. He alleges exploitation of workers, low wages, anti-unionjobs, union retaliation, discrimination and effecting the closingof small businesses which are key to a local economy.

We understand that in this economy, we need jobs, but not the jobsthat Walmart brings. [We need] jobs that treat people with dignityand respect, and pay a living wage, said the former city councilcandidate in Brooklyn’s 38th District, which includes SunsetPark.

In response to the news that the city’s construction unions came toa give-year-deal to provide workers for any Walmart buildingproject, Galarza said that although Walmart [is made up of]experts at dividing and conquering communities, he was glad forthe workers, but would have hoped that in the negotiating process,they stood up for their brothers in the trade who would staff thesuperstore.

Two of the most promising sites for Walmart are the GatewayShopping Center II just east of the Starrett City/Canarsie sectionof the borough, and the planned Four Sparrows Marsh Retail Mallalong Flatbush Avenue, south of Avenue U and just north of the BeltParkway, in the Mill Basin section.

Local Reaction

Pat Condren, executive director of the 86th Street BID, noted thatalthough Bay Ridge’s retail strips are proudly small businessfocused, the willingness by some New Yorkers to drive to New Jerseyfor a Walmart shows that the chain of superstores does have a placein the world.

If and when a Walmart does come to Brooklyn, the quality ofcustomer service is what will give businesses like those alongThird and Fifth avenues and 86th Street a competitive edge over bigbox stores, said James F. Clark, president of the Bay Ridge FifthAvenue BID.

For Councilman Vincent Gentile, with no formal land use requestfrom Walmart, or even a site chosen, he said it is difficult tocome down one way or another. A lot of people have their mindsmade up, with strong pro and con feelings on the issue, explainedDena Libner, communications director for Councilman Gentile.

I think it would be a really interesting discussion to have once alocation is picked and details set and Walmart comes to the table,she said. The councilman is waiting to hear the details… and wewould like to wait till the discussion starts.

For all the heated arguments and impassioned opinions on bothsides, there are no concrete details – such as a finalized lease oreven an official bid on a property – as to whether and whereexactly Walmart is headed. But New Yorkers now know that by itsmere interest in coming here, Walmart has already inserted itselfinto our city consciousness. And when it does choose a location,there might not be anything the city can do about it.

So why hold the Council hearing What can residents do? CharlesFisher summed it up well, saying he testified because I love NewYork City and I’m concerned for our children. I’m tired ofcontroversy. We need more respect [including for Walmart]. Isn’t itpossible that everyone’s right? There is more than one way to skina cat.

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