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

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If all four stores open, Wal-Mart says it would create up to 1,200 permanent jobs in the District. That would be a big help for neighborhoods where the percentage of unemployed people is in the teens or higher.

Finally, the sizable number of District residents who already shop regularly at Wal-Mart wouldn't have to drive to the suburbs to do so.

That was the No. 1 lure mentioned in Northeast. Every one of the dozen people I interviewed shopped at Wal-Mart, most of them several times a month. They go mostly to Wal-Marts in Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, but sometimes to Northern Virginia.

"A lot of customers are asking me about shopping and say, 'Where's Wal-Mart around here?' " said Genene Gurmessa, 27, cashier at one of two Exxon Tiger marts at the busy intersection.

D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, who will oversee a city review of two of the Wal-Mart sites, said the chain's arrival would be an advance in the city's long-term effort to increase shopping choices and keep sales tax dollars from "leaking" to the suburbs.

"We've had a big push to bring more retail to our city where people want to shop," Tregoning said. "We think it's great that a lot of types of retail that had previously ignored the District, and other cities, are now discovering our healthy, urban markets."

When city leaders are talking that way, it's easy to understand why opposition to Wal-Mart seems so weak. The anti-Wal-Mart rally Monday drew only about 70 people, of whom about 20 were covering the event for local media.

Also, the Respect DC coalition of nonprofit groups, unions and churches that organized the demonstration wasn't actually trying to keep Wal-Mart out. Its main demand was that the company sign a citywide Community Benefits Agreement that would promise in writing to do things such as invest in local communities and treat its workers well.

"It does seem Wal-Mart is showing a willingness to change and do things differently, which is why we're asking for them to negotiate rather than opposing their entry altogether," said Mackenzie Baris, one of the coalition's leaders .

Planning director Tregoning said she was "very supportive" of asking Wal-Mart to sign such an agreement but noted that her office's leverage with Wal-Mart is currently "very limited." That's because Wal-Mart is not asking for tax incentives or other public subsidies that would require D.C. Council approval.

The city should do what it can to make Wal-Mart live up to its promises. Overall, though, it should welcome the company's willingness to invest in communities that have been crying out for jobs and better shopping for decades.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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