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

Thursday, February 10, 2011; B01

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.

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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