Activists wage campaign against Wal-Mart in D.C.

By Jonathan O'Connell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 10:15 PM

Neighborhood activists, affordable housing advocates and labor unions are mounting campaigns aimed at thwarting Wal-Mart's plan to open its first stores in D.C.

A handful of residents of Brightwood, an Upper Northwest neighborhood that includes Georgia Avenue, wrote members of the D.C. Council this week to oppose a proposed Wal-Mart on Georgia Avenue. The group has also created a Web site, Ward Four Thrives, to spread the word.

Thursday night, about 20 activists staged a protest at the home of a development executive planning the store, walking in circles on the snow-covered sidewalk chanting "Keep D.C. Wal-Mart free."

As part of a national strategy to serve more urban markets, Wal-Mart announced last month that it planned to open four stores in the District. The company said it would sell fresh food and create 1,200 jobs with competitive wages. Wal-Mart has not signed any leases and has met with residents and city council members to boost support.

The announcement took some critics by surprise. Thomas P. McNutt, president of Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents employees of area Giant and Safeway stores, acknowledged he had been caught flat-footed by the announcement, though the company has been considering D.C. locations for years.

McNutt said he was preparing a forceful response. "We are going to bring the fight to them," he said.

Of the planned stores, in wards 4, 5, 6 and 7, the proposed Georgia Avenue Wal-Mart, in Ward 4, has drawn the most criticism. Unlike other spots, the site at Georgia and Missouri avenues, home of a former car dealership, is adjacent to several small businesses that could suffer.

In a letter Tuesday to members of the D.C. Council, area residents Gerri Adams-Simmons, Michele Baskin and Rebecca Mills said they wanted "Upper Georgia Avenue to thrive, not to become a sea of abandoned buildings with a Wal-Mart at the center."

Thursday night's protesters, most of whom were not from Brightwood, marched at the Woodley Park home of Dick Knapp, a vice president of the development firm Foulger-Pratt, which owns the site.

"We're trying to make the point that just as no one in Woodley Park would stand for a Wal-Mart being built there, we don't want one in our neighborhood either," said Adrian Madsen, who has helped organize a "Wal-Mart Free D.C." campaign and is a member of the group Empower D.C.

Knapp, reached on the phone before the protest, said he would continue to listen to residents at community meetings, not to the activists chanting outside. Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said the protest would not affect the company's plans.

"What we're finding is that the more people get to know us, the more they want a Wal-Mart coming to their neighborhood," he said.

None of the council members representing the neighborhoods where Wal-Mart has plans has announced a stance on the proposed stores. Some have said they want to hear more from residents and from the company about wages and charitable donations.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) toured small businesses near Georgia Avenue last week, including a dry cleaner and a new empanada restaurant. She said then that she thought Foulger-Pratt's design for the proposed Wal-Mart was "too suburban" and that she would like to see housing built there as well, as had been proposed previously as a stand-alone project.

But she said many critics who say they are worried about small businesses don't seem to rely on the corridor for basic goods.

"Every time, I ask them which one do you shop at?" she said. "And they don't have an answer."

Manny Hidalgo, executive director for the nonprofit Latino Economic Development Corp., is watching Wal-Mart's plans because his organization has provided micro-loans and technical assistance to Latino-owned businesses nearby. At the same time, Wal-Mart's charitable foundation has helped to finance his efforts.

Hidalgo said he will canvass neighborhood business people on the proposed store.

"We're reserving judgment on whether or not it's a good thing for now," he said.

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