NO ONE CAN fault D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for pushing hard to revitalize struggling city neighborhoods. He’s right to use every resource at his disposal to get private industry to invest in underserved communities. But this ultimatum to Wal-Mart — that it either build a store in the Skyland neighborhood of Ward 7 or lose official city support for four other locations — comes dangerously close to crossing the line between tough negotiation and political extortion.
“You have a choice. You can do five stores, or you can do no stores,” is the line Mr. Gray told The Post’s Jonathan O’Connell that he and other city officials delivered to Wal-Mart executives in a meeting at the recent shopping-center convention in Las Vegas. Unless the mega-retailer commits to anchoring Skyland Town Center, a long-delayed project in the mayor’s home ward that is one of his top redevelopment projects, it could risk plans for stores in Wards 4, 5, 6 and 7. Never mind that those locations — one of which is east of Anacostia River — would serve communities that lack adequate shopping options, especially for fresh, affordable food. Or that the four stores represent 1,200 retail jobs, 400 construction jobs and an estimated $10 million in annual tax revenue for the District.
Wal-Mart is not asking for government help, either in subsidies or zoning changes. But Mr. Gray, according to The Post’s account, indicated he would be prepared to reject the company’s request for building permits. Victor L. Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told us that the ultimatum comment was made in “jest” and was an overstatement of the city’s position, which he characterized as passion for development east of the river.
We are glad to hear a clarification of the face-to-face meeting. There’s no question that a fair amount of horse-trading goes on when companies enter — or are courted by — a market. But threatening to interfere with a governmental process is nothing more than a shakedown. Either Wal-Mart meets the legal requirements or it doesn’t; either its developments satisfy community requirements or they don’t. Wal-Mart should not, as we have previously argued, be treated differently from any other business seeking to lawfully open up in the city. If the rules are fungible, firms thinking of coming to the city might have second thoughts.
Wal-Mart officials say that they are interested in additional locations in the District and have looked at Skyland. Mr. Gray is correct that the firm could be a catalyst in this depressed community; encouragingly there has been recent progress on the legal issues that have delayed redevelopment of the aging shopping complex. But deciding to locate a store should be an economic determination made by Wal-Mart executives, not a price to be paid to do business in the District.