Wal-Mart plans to open six stores in the District
By Nikita Stewart and Jonathan O’Connell,
Wal-Mart will announce Wednesday that it intends to open six stores in the District, two more than it originally planned, and broaden its reach east of the Anacostia River, an area grappling with unemployment and a lack of retail amenities, city officials said.
The announcement is expected a year after the company revealed its aggressive plan to enter the District for the first time, a push for the Arkansas-based company, which has saturated rural and suburban areas and has begun moving into major urban markets.
It also will consummate a dogged effort by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) to persuade Wal-Mart to open at Skyland Town Center, a long-neglected Southeast shopping center that has been mired in land disputes. Most recently, Gray (D) personally called Bill Simon, president and chief executive of Wal-Mart U.S., to ask what the city could do to get the company to expedite a store at Skyland.
Besides Skyland, the other new site is in Fort Totten in Northeast, where a Wal-Mart will fill the first floor of an apartment development called Fort Totten Square.
Wal-Mart previously announced plans for stores at a former car dealership on Georgia Avenue NW in Ward 4; at East Capitol and 58th streets in Ward 7; at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE in Ward 5; and as part of a new mixed-use development on New Jersey Avenue NW in Ward 6. It also laid out rapid expansion plans in the local suburbs, plotting stores in Tysons Corner, Rockville, Aspen Hill and Oxon Hill.
Wal-Mart’s plans to enter the District have inspired complaints and protests from labor unions and activists, who say that the chain does not pay adequate wages. Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said the stores would create 1,800 jobs, offer fresh groceries in underserved areas and pay competitively. Both of the additional new stores will be about 120,000 square feet and will include pharmacies, bakeries and deli counters.
“What we’ve said all along is that our wages and benefits are as good, if not better, than the majority of businesses we would compete with that are currently doing business in D.C. — union or not union. So we feel really good abut the competitive nature of our offerings,” Restivo said.
The prospect of adding jobs and as much as $15 million in annual sales taxes from the six stores mitigates concerns from labor unions and grass-roots activists, city officials said, adding that wages would be competitive.
Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he has met with representatives of labor unions and opposition groups.
“Our first goal is to get some jobs here. This is 1,800 jobs,” Hoskins said. “A lot of this is about getting people their first jobs.”
Local opponents of Wal-Mart said it was disappointing to see the chain advance its plans without agreeing to provide concessions to the city.
“The mayor had really given the impression that there would be a community benefits agreement before the four initial stores moved forward,” said Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer for DC Jobs With Justice, which has coordinated with unions to protest Wal-Mart’s expansion. “And now there are additional stores . . . I don’t know how the communities around the existing store sites wouldn’t feel betrayed.”
“We respect the mayor’s desire to have development happen equitably across the city, but we hold our concerns about what is going to happen when these stores open,” she added.
Marina Streznewski, executive director of the D.C. Jobs Council, a coalition of job training organizations, said she didn’t agree with the “perception that any job is a good job.”
“I don’t necessarily think that’s true. People cannot necessarily support themselves working at Wal-Mart,” she said.
The chain has curried favor by making millions of dollars in local charitable donations. In August, Wal-Mart’s charitable foundation announced that it was giving $3 million to workforce development efforts. That came weeks after the foundation gave the city $665,000 to help with school nutrition and the Summer Youth Employment Program. In the fiscal year that ended Jan. 31, the foundation doled out $2.4 million to District-based charities.
Wal-Mart and the Gray administration are still negotiating a community benefits agreement, in which the chain would agree to provide the District with certain concessions.
In May, Gray and Hoskins met with Wal-Mart representatives at the annual convention of the International Council of Shopping Centers in Las Vegas. Gray told the company he would like to see the chain open a store at Skyland, which D.C. officials envision as a mixed-use town center by developers the Rappaport Cos. and William C. Smith & Co. The city has already approved a $40 million subsidy and spent an additional $12.2 million settling eminent domain cases to gain control of the site. Some cases remain open, but Hoskins hopes to fully control Skyland by 2013.
Although Gray has set a four-pronged agenda of education reform, job creation, crime prevention and fiscal responsibility, he has also focused on growing jobs and amenities in communities east of the river. That effort has been hampered by budget shortfalls and a limit on borrowing.
Gray, 69, first entered politics in 2004, when he ran successfully to represent Ward 7 on the council. He quickly moved up the ranks, was elected council chairman in 2006 and mayor last year, partly with support from constituents who saw his ascension as a chance for eastern neighborhoods to gain influence.
Brown, who was elected as an at-large council member in 2004, persuaded Simon to visit Skyland in January when the executive was in town to make a healthy eating announcement with first lady Michelle Obama. Brown and Gray both live in the Hillcrest neighborhood. Skyland is nearby.
“The mayor has a passion, particularly for Ward 7 and Ward 8,” Hoskins said. “He wants to build a bridge [between east and west]. In order to do that, you have to lift that economy.”