Why Wal-Mart should come to retail-challenged parts of D.C.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011; 7:42 PM

ANY LARGE development in the District must undergo a review to ensure that there are no adverse impacts to the neighborhood and that the project is in keeping with the city's comprehensive plan. Wal-Mart, which hopes to open four stores in the District, will have to go through this process. Ahead of time, its executives are holding neighborhood meetings, seeking to understand the concerns of the communities it wants to join and defuse any opposition.

Well and good. What would be less appropriate would be to expect Wal-Mart to make concessions or jump through hoops not expected of other businesses that want to lawfully open up shop in the city.

Last fall, Wal-Mart announced initial plans to open stores in Wards 4, 5, 6 and 7, and it has followed with a carefully orchestrated campaign to win support and disarm critics. It says that its stores would create 1,200 retail jobs and 400 construction jobs and would generate an estimated $10 million annually in tax revenue for the city.

The company proposes locating in parts of the city that lack access to fresh, affordable food. Even better, though Wal-Mart is not seeking tax relief or government assistance, it promises to form charitable partnerships on hunger and workforce development. The company says that it is committed to hiring D.C. residents.

Nonetheless, there's opposition, mainly from a coalition of labor, community and environmental groups alleging that the mega-retailer mistreats its workers and undercuts small businesses. But Wal-Mart says that, in a city with unemployment as high as 30 percent in some neighborhoods, it will create jobs paying on average $12.49 an hour, above the minimum wage. Most will be full time with benefits. There are few small businesses to be driven out. Just ask the commerce-starved residents of Wards 5 and 7, who, in large measure, seem to relish the opening of a Wal-Mart near their homes. It's not as if Washingtonians don't frequent Wal-Mart; company officials estimate that more than $41 million is spent annually at its Maryland and Virginia stores by D.C. residents.

Mindful of past controversies, Wal-Mart seems intent on making a good impression in the nation's capital. No doubt good results here would ease its entry into other urban markets. Its officials say that they may be willing to enter into community benefits agreements; there are concerns that need to be addressed when the company submits its plans to the city's office of planning (the D.C. Council has no formal role, since the parcels in question are appropriately zoned). But unsubstantiated criticism should not be allowed to derail a private investment that, on balance, appears to be to the advantage of the District and its residents.


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