May 13, 2011

When you talk about economic development, it’s easy to get caught up in numbers and statistics and forget that the best way to see the effect on a community is to see it firsthand.

We come from different cities, but the need for economic development is the same in urban areas across our country, and we believe in the powerful effect that new development can have on a community. Some of these effects can be measured, such as the number of new businesses that open. Others are harder to qualify, like the hope that new opportunity brings. Wal-Mart has made such a difference in Chicago’s 37th Ward.

That’s why the study of the impact of the first Wal-Mart to enter Chicago five years ago [“The Chicago precedent: Wal-Mart’s arrival was a wash for workers,” Local Opinions, May 6] rings so false. The picture of the 37th Ward that this study painted simply was not the neighborhood that exists in the real world.

We aren’t the first or the only ones to have taken issue with the study. In fact, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote in a June 2010 editorial, “Though pegged as the first urban analysis of Wal-Mart’s impact on local businesses and jobs, the study turns out to be little more than a cheap shot at Wal-Mart. The underlying data are weak, even if the researchers’ forceful conclusions are not. In other words, their conclusions are no conclusions at all.”

In writing about their study in The Post, David Merriman and Joseph J. Persky described the 37th Ward as having “a dense network of stores before Wal-Mart arrived, and many of these stores appeared to lose sales to Wal-Mart.” We would like to know exactly what neighborhood they are writing about. Before Wal-Mart, the 37th Ward was, unfortunately, like many neighborhoods in D.C. today — with many empty lots and few retail or grocery options.

There is plenty more that the study’s authors seem to have overlooked, such as basic economics. To find the net loss of jobs in a city, one must add new jobs created and subtract jobs lost, right? Yet, according to the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group, “One problem is that the Loyola calculation includes all competing jobs lost but excludes all competing jobs gained.” So, the authors claim, the new Wal-Mart jobs merely offset the jobs lost in the community by the businesses that closed — yet they do not count the jobs gained from new neighborhood businesses. Menards, Food4Less, Aldi, CVS, Burlington Coat Factory, Chase and Bank of America are just a few of the 22 companies that have opened businesses within just a half-mile of the new Wal-Mart.

With unemployment at 9.5 percent, the District needs those jobs and that access to retail. A recent study by Delta Associates Inc. showed that D.C. residents continue to be underserved by retailers compared with Maryland and Virginia residents.

Finally, the businesses that the study did count are within a four-mile radius of the new Wal-Mart. That means that the study holds the opening of a single Wal-Mart accountable for businesses closing within four miles in a densely populated urban area during a national economic crisis. In D.C., that would be like saying that a business closing in Arlington, at the height of the recession, was affected by a business opening on K Street.

As D.C. works to revitalize its neighborhoods, attract retailers and overcome its budget deficit, how could it think to turn away a company that wants no government subsidies but will bring retail prosperity to areas of the city that have been forgotten and neglected for years?

If stakeholders in cities across the country are intent on using Chicago as an example of what can happen in their city, we encourage them to go to Chicago and see, firsthand, what the arrival of Wal-Mart has meant.

Harry Thomas Jr. is a member of the D.C. Council (D-Ward 5). Emma Mitts is a member of the Chicago City Council (D-Ward 37).