But Montgomery has changed dramatically in the decade since Wal-Mart last sought to build in the county and ended up with just the store in Germantown, not the four it wanted.
The prosperity that for years insulated Montgomery from hard choices has given way to a tougher economic, and political, reality, reflected in this summer’s fractious contract talks with government employee unions and this month’s remarkable retreat on an antiwar resolution.
Now comes Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer, with a promise of new jobs and low prices to a community that may not be able to be as choosy as it once was.
County officials are wrestling with how far they should go to limit the retailer and what effect those efforts could have on other developments. They are weighing a controversial bill that would require all big-box stores, including Wal-Mart, to meet with community groups and try to agree on subjects ranging from wages and benefits to traffic and environmental issues.
The legislation, which is scheduled to be discussed at a County Council hearing Tuesday, is already stirring anger among commercial interests. According to three county officials, the Westfield Group, which owns the site of a Costco planned for Wheaton, halted prep work last week, citing the bill as the cause.
Catharine C. Dickey, a national spokeswoman for Westfield, would neither confirm nor deny the action. But council member George Leventhal (D-At Large) said a regional Westfield executive, Clive Mackenzie, told him at a meeting Thursday that the site workers are now “standing around smoking cigarettes.”
A changing Montgomery
The county’s lower-income population has been growing for decades. But the country’s economic troubles have put more strain on the county’s finances just as residents’ needs are rising.
Adjusted for inflation, Montgomery saw a drop in median household income in the past decade, according to census data, a striking turnabout for a jurisdiction long ranked among the wealthiest in the nation.
There are 5,500 fewer jobs in the county compared with a decade ago, according to federal labor statistics. County officials are worried that some of the county’s 45,000 federal jobs could be lost in the continuing push to cut the federal deficit.
Many county officials question Wal-Mart’s employment policies and history of drying up unionized stores and other local businesses. This month, Wal-Mart announced that it would no longer provide health care to part-time workers, rolling back a recent expansion of benefits.
But how the council will channel its unease into legislation is unclear. The bill, introduced by the council’s president, Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), may push the potential new Wal-Mart stores out of Montgomery, said local developers involved with the plans.