ROBERT McCARTNEY

Wal-Mart's arrival in District looks like welcome advance for shopping, jobs

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

When politicians, agency officials and other establishment types discuss the pros and cons of Wal-Mart opening stores in poor, retail-starved neighborhoods in the District, they often talk about pretty high-minded stuff. Fair pay. Job training. Environmental safeguards.

By contrast, in the scruffy blocks around the corner of New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast Washington, where the first of four Wal-Marts planned for the District would probably be built, the residents have more immediate, street-level concerns.

First, would a new Wal-Mart there really stock the same quality of food and products as its stores do in better-off, suburban communities?

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mya Harris, 24, said skeptically. "Sure, you can put the store here, but what are they going to put inside it?"

Second, and I was amazed when this anxiety was aired in fully half the interviews, residents worry that the store would suffer severely or even fail because of petty theft.

"There'll probably be a lot of shoplifting going on. They'll need a lot of security," Terriea Sutton, 35, said.

Brenda Speaks, a Ward 4 ANC commissioner, actually urged blocking construction of the planned store in her ward at Georgia and Missouri avenues NW partly because of that risk. Addressing a small, anti-Wal-Mart rally at City Hall on Monday, Speaks said young people would get criminal records when they couldn't resist the temptation to steal.

Wal-Mart said District residents needn't be so self-critical. Although security is "always a concern and a focal point for all stores, there is no more concern over these District locations than any other store locations," company spokesman Steven Restivo said.

It's sad that people have such a low opinion of their own community. Happily, with prudent oversight from the city, Wal-Mart's arrival should be a significant step forward for the neighborhood and the District as a whole.

Although the giant retail and grocery chain has a decidedly mixed reputation, it says it will pay competitive wages and benefits, help with job training and satisfy other desires expressed by city leaders including Mayor Vincent Gray.

Avoiding a mistake it's made when it entered some other cities, Wal-Mart has made no secret of its interest in the District.

"We had a tendency before to almost sneak in. We have become a better neighbor about that," Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs, said Monday at a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters.


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