Friday, February 04, 2011

Walmart and Related: Are You Hearing Us Now?

The Walmart battle was joined yesterday with what was the most spirited defense of small business that was ever seen down at the city council. So, if Walmart has accomplished one thing, it is for stimulating a wide swath of council members to stand up for the backbone of the NYC economy. The NY Daily News has the story: "A Walmart war erupted at City Hall Thursday as politicians lashed out at the big box retailer - whose execs skipped the hearing but fought back with a publicity blitz. Hundreds of protesters angrily denounced Walmart, and small business owners testified that they were afraid they'd close if the retail giant succeeds in opening its first city store."

What was particularly gratifying was the outpouring of the members of the National Supermarket Association-the group that represents the independent minority owned food stores in the city. Theses store owners are right in the eye of the Walmart storm: "But opponents insist Walmart - the biggest retailer in the country - is in a category by itself."They're going to kill me," said Elvin Fernandez, 49, owner of an Aim Supermarket in East New York, near the planned Gateway II shopping center that Walmart is eyeing. He said business already fell 25% after a BJs moved in nearby - and Walmart would be much worse. "It's everything - electronics, shoes, clothing, everything. It's all the small retailers that are going to suffer," he said. "They say they're creating 500 jobs, but they're going to kill 2000 jobs."

The fears of Mr. Fernandez are not just his own-as this report from Reuters indicates: "Wal-Mart's lengthy struggle to open in New York City has hit fresh problems -- a controversial report that said America's biggest discounter does not just sell cheap, it makes neighborhoods poorer. The report concludes that Wal-Mart, the biggest U.S. private employer, kills jobs rather than creates them, drives down wages and is a tax burden because it does not give health and other benefits to many part-time employees, leaving a burden on Medicaid and other public programs."

The Reuters story was underscored at the hearing by Stacy Mitchell's testimony. Mitchell, who represents the Institute for Local Self Reliance, has been a regular feature of this blog, and she dramatized the extent to which a box store like Walmart reduces the, "social capital," of a local community-another example of how stores like the Walmonster drain dollars away from a locality, while indigenous entrepreneurs circulate money; not only to suppliers in the area but to not-for-profits and other local charities that they support.

These arguments were made forcefully by Speaker Quinn and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez in yesterday's Daily News Op-ed. Citing studies of the Walmonster's impact, they pointed out: "One of those studies, citing the company's predatory business practices, established that a quarter of nearby small businesses shuttered their doors within the first year of Walmart opening in Chicago. Another showed that after Walmart comes to a town, it actually kills more jobs than it creates because of its impact on surrounding businesses.
Now apply those results to New York City. Think about the corner bodega where you get your morning coffee or the mom-and-pop shop owner you wave to every day on your way home. Instead, imagine your neighborhood as a deserted, economic crater, with Walmart at the epicenter."

The concern with Walmart is not an isolated issue for the city's struggling small businesses. It needs to be seen in the context of the nine years of mayoral small business antagonism and misguided economic policy that has left the city's neighborhood retailers bruised and battered. Mega-development after mega development has made it more difficult for the little guys to survive-boxed in, as it were by mega stores that the mayor has given cart blanche to because of his close friendships with developers like Related.

It is why bankruptcies are at an all time high-aided and abetted by a tax and regulatory regime that socks it to everyone-but impacts smaller businesses more severely. It is what the NY Post forgets when it uses all of its considerable resources to support Walmart and other mega development around the city-never once holding Mike Bloomberg accountable for the city's job losses in the neighborhood.

Instead, we get attacks on the city council for standing up to the Walmonster. Calling the council, "job killers, the paper lashes out: "The City Council convenes today for a hearing on whether Walmart will finally be allowed to open an outlet within the five boroughs. How's that for arrogant: Chris Quinn's Clown College presumes to sit in judgment of the largest, most customer-friendly retailer on the planet. It is to laugh, really. The transactional hacks in City Hall will be busy pouring cement shoes for city shoppers once again, under orders from their union-boss pals."

No mention of the Walmonster's small business impact, or the close to a decade of ruinous big government, high taxation policies practiced by Mayor Mike Bloomberg-the biggest front for the biggest guys we have ever seen. If it is a big store, Mike likes it-but if you're the little bodega you might as well be invisible for all of the love you'll never see from  Bloomberg.  And the Post has yet to really stand up against the mayor's worst practice-the promiscuous use of eminent domain to run small property owners off of their land-and we thought that the paper prides itself on defending conservative principles!

But for all of the love for the small businesses of NYC that was shown yesterday, and the trenchant critiques of the Walmonster, the battle  against Walmart has just begun-because it will be specific sites that will focus the attention of the average folks-as we saw in Tottenville on Staten Island. Then it will be real impacts on real neighborhoods that will come to the fore-and all of the theoretical arguments will fade somewhat.

When it comes to a site fight, all of the public relations hoo ha from the Walmonster will come to naught-and the zealous concern that New Yorkers have for their neighborhoods will rise ferociously.