Walmart announced last week that it is pulling out of a plan for a store at the Skyland Town Center in Southeast Washington. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
Columnist

It’s not unusual for working-class and low-income people to be targeted for con jobs — high-interest payday loans, scam repair services, products marketed with false claims. But the bait-and-switch that Walmart just pulled off in the District has to rank among the sleaziest ever played.

To get approval to build three stores in wealthier parts of the city, Walmart promised to build two in underserved neighborhoods. So they built the three they wanted. Then, last week, Walmart told city officials that it had made “fresh assumptions” about the profitability of stores slated for black working-class neighborhoods and decided not to build them.

City leaders were understandably upset, having been used as patsies in the Walmart maneuver.

“I’m blood mad,” D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at a news conference Friday.

Walmart said Friday that it is terminating plans to build two stores on the east side of the Anacostia River in Washington D.C. This comes after the retail giant announced it was closing more than 200 stores around the world. (WUSA9)

But it was the residents in those underserved neighborhoods who got burned.

To make way for the new, Walmart-anchored Skyland Town Center in Southeast Washington, the city had demolished a tattered but vital neighborhood economy. Variety shops, a laundromat, a beauty shop and fast-food establishments were razed along Good Hope Road near Alabama Avenue. Some apartments were also demolished, and residents were displaced.

“They knocked down all our stores and said they were bringing in something better,” recalled R.M. McKnight, who had been a cook at a now-demolished Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. “They said they were cleaning up the area and going to make everything nice and good.”

Then last week, Walmart told District officials that the economics had changed. Large urban Walmarts were more expensive to build and less profitable to operate. The three D.C. stores had shown disappointing results. The company no longer believed the stores planned for Skyland and Capitol Gateway Marketplace, in Northeast, would generate enough sales.

But the proposed Walmart in Southeast meant much more to the residents than sales. A rendering of the new Skyland center depicted an astounding transformation of a long-neglected D.C. neighborhood. Gone were the mom-and-pop shops with unsightly, roll-down, corrugated-metal security fronts. In their place were 300,000 square feet of retail stores, 1,300 ground-level parking spaces and 475 residential units — some rising three stories atop the Walmart.

Billed as a “Prominent Living, Shopping & Gathering Place,” the $200 million or more project would have been a bold step toward broadening the benefits of living in a revitalized Washington. The two Walmart stores that the mega-corporation reneged on would have been located east of the Anacostia River, where resurgence has been slower than in the rest of the city.

The river has long been a geographic dividing line between rich and poor in the city, which has one of the widest income disparities in the nation. It is inconceivable that Walmart did not know about the racial demographic and economic state of the city when agreeing to put two stores east of the river.

Nevertheless, there probably will not be any consequences to reneging on the deal. Rarely do corporations pay for shafting the poor and the working class. D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) delivered the hardest knock that the corporation is likely to get.

“The optics of this are horrible; they are not going to build the stores east of the river, in largely African American neighborhoods?” said Evans, who chairs the council’s finance committee. “That’s horrible; you can’t do that. A deal’s a deal.”

Actually, it was a reluctant promise made on a handshake, apparently with fingers crossed behind their backs.

“We needed that Walmart,” said Chris Johnson, who was working as a security guard Monday for the grand opening of Good Hope Family Dental in Southeast. “Having more jobs helps reduce crime, which brings in more jobs and more benefits to the community.”

Will Emerson, an employment specialist who lives in the Skyland neighborhood, said he, too, had been looking forward to Walmart’s arrival. “More jobs, better prices,” he said. “Now all we have is Safeway, Giant, CVS. It’s a disappointment.”

McKnight had lost his job as a cook for KFC when the fast-food restaurant was demolished. “I had been doing all right, supporting my child,” he said. “Finding another steady job has been hard. People were saying things would get better when Walmart opened, how my work experience would help me get a job with benefits and employee discounts.”

Looking out over the razed, empty acreage, he recalled that the old stores lining the street may not have been much, but they were better than nothing.

“We had a Murry’s Steaks and a Discount Mart. Not everybody can afford Safeway, okay?” McKnight said. “They even tore down the laundromat. People have to catch a ride just to get their clothes washed.”

A dirty deal.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.