Friday, December 10, 2010

Wal-Mart Needs Hearing Aide

According to the Crain's Insider (subsc.), Wal-Mart and Friends are concerned that the upcoming city council oversight hearing on the retail giant (rescheduled to January 12th in order to provide a big enough venue for the public outpouring against Big Wally), will deteriorate into a, "circus," that they feel wouldn't be productive: "Walmart officials have yet to decide whether they'll wade into enemy waters to testify at a City Council hearing on the retail giant's potential impact on the city. The council invited supporters and opponents of Walmart, but only the latter have signed up to testify. A preliminary list of speakers for the “When Walmart Comes to Town” hearing includes labor leaders, small business representatives and academics who have argued that Walmart has a negative impact on communities."

We understand their trepidation-because the fact remains that there are countless opponents of the Walmonster chomping at the bit in anticipation of giving the council an earful about why the store isn't good for NYC: "Retail union chief Stu Appelbaum and Gristedes consultants plan to appear before the three council committees hosting the hearing, which yesterday was rescheduled for Jan 12. David Merriman, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who authored a study arguing a Chicago Walmart had not increased local employment or retail activity, will also be on hand."

Kathy Wylde, speaking for the larger business community, expresses her legitimate concern: "The five borough chambers of commerce, the Partnership for New York City and the Economic Development Corp. were invited, but none has committed. “If the hearing is just a show designed to send Walmart a signal they're still not welcome in New York, I'm not interested in being part of that,” says Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership. “It sounds like it's going to be a circus.”

But the reality is, that there is such a huge groundswell of opposition to Wal-Mart-including the speaker-that any council hearing will reflect that grass roots sentiment-whether the proponents of Wal-Mart feel that this is fair, or not. But the company spokesman makes what we feel is an interesting point: "Steven Restivo, Walmart's director of community affairs, wonders why the council is singling out Walmart for a hearing when there are more than 700 existing large grocers and retailers in the city that could provide actual evidence of the effects of such stores. “We are still evaluating our options regarding participation in the hearing,” he says. “It would seem logical that the committee should first conduct a thoughtful examination of the impact of existing large grocers and retailers on small businesses in New York City before embarking on a hypothetical exercise.”

Well, first of all, we don't know where Restivo gets his 700 number from-and we'd like to see a categorical breakdown of this. But his call for a thoughtful investigation of, "the impact of existing larger grocers and retailers on small business in New York City," has merit-and we believe that the outcome of such a study would not please Big Wally and its Big Business chorus.

As a first step in this review process, however, why doesn't Restivo's company agree to a year's moratorium on siting Wal-Mart stores here-particularly the super centers? And the review should pay close attention to the retail food industry, and examine how Wal-Mart's entry into local markets all over the country has closed 1300 supermarkets in the past decade. In addition, the review should analyze the severe retail small business climate in NYC, and juxtapose it with the mayor's unremitting large retail development agenda.

What Restivo is suggesting is something akin to what we have asked the city council to do-begin to devise economic impact parameters that will enable the legislature to better judge the merits of EDC's development projects. In doing so, it would be wise for the council to attach these parameters to legislation that gives it wider discretion of what projects merit its approval.