A Case for Wal-Mart

Last week, the Washington Business Journal reported that Wal-Mart is exploring the idea of opening a store in the District. This isn't the first time this has happened, the prospect was discussed back in 2004, with a potential site in Brookland. Now, it appears Wal-Mart has its eyes on Poplar Point in Southeast.

Wal-Mart has indicated that the move will not be possible unless it is offered some tax incentives by the District. It appears as though this is off the table for the Fenty administration. From the BizJournal piece:

“Over the last couple of years we’ve had numerous discussions about [Epperson’s] plans for his site next to Poplar Point,” [Fenty spokesperson Sean] Madigan said and added: “We’re not entertaining any subsidies to bring Wal-Mart to the city for any site.”

No subsides for any site. Fenty's developed a spine, and is putting his foot down. Say no to Wal-Mart. Say no to the big box and everything it represents.

Over at DCist, the commentariat for the most part is outraged and glad that Fenty is standing up to Wal-Mart. I loved this one from elizqueenmama, especially:
NOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Trust me, you would rather have that shell stay a shell. Building a Wal-Mart at that location [Rhode Island Avenue] would kill all chance of small locally-owned businesses opening anywhere in the area, and would further encourage the perception of the area as a crappy place you want to drive by as fast as you can. There needs to be another use for that space. NOT another big box store, please! Wal-Mart would indeed be the worst of all. It sucks the souls from people, I swear.
Yes, what depressed, under-served areas of the city need are more "locally-owned" businesses that "serve the neighborhood." More liquor stores, overpriced corner shops and check-cashing places, please.

Is Wal-Mart the perfect retailer? Absolutely not. Wal-Mart does not have a stellar reputation for its working conditions. But wouldn't a Wal-Mart in Southeast (or Northeast) be a good thing for the city?

Let's look at what a Wal-Mart would provide. Immediately there would be construction jobs to build the store. After completion, there would be hundreds of jobs created to staff the store.

Wal-Mart hopes to build a fairly large store it seems, so it would likely include a grocery component. Let's see, what's so bad about low-cost food? Wal-Mart is the nation's largest grocery store, and they have been investing in more organic choices. A Wal-Mart in the eastern part of the city could provide many, many, residents with lower-cost, (possibly) healthier foods. Coupled with the low-cost pharmacy and other goods, a Wal-Mart that was easily accessible would be invaluable to many of the District's residents, especially many lower income residents.

In 2004, Brookland residents were worried about a Wal-Mart killing local businesses. Let's really look at that. Are some mom-and-pop retailers at risk when a low-cost big box store comes to town? Absolutely. In my neighborhood, for example, in the last two years two new grocery stores have opened. Harris Teeter and the Target. Have some small "local" grocery stores suffered. Maybe. Do I care? Not particularly. If a corner market's business model is to seriously overcharge what are mostly lower income customers, I feel very little pity. These small stores create little, if any, jobs and charge astronomically high prices compared to Safeway, Giant, Target or Wal-Mart. These places are not a good deal. It's not their fault, they can't get the same price for goods that the big chains can. But for everyone except the owners, the prices they charge are too high. Should residents feel an obligation to subsidize a business with an unsustainable model just because they are "locally owned?" Take a walk to your corner store, and see the price of milk. Compare that to Safeway. It's ridiculous. Don't tell me that these stores are vital to our community.

I used to work for a small business. I worked for an independent hardware retailer when the Target opened. There was some concern that we would lose business. We probably did lose a bit of business. What did we do? We aimed to be as efficient as possible and further improve customer service. Make the shopping experience better at our store than at Target. Businesses that provide a viable and valuable alternative will survive. Businesses that likely shouldn't even exist (e.g. most corner markets) will suffer.

There are great portions of the District that are vastly under-served by business. Wal-Mart thrives in these environments. Bringing a Wal-Mart to the city would make a lot of things a lot more affordable for a lot of people. Wal-Mart should not be off the table.

The city jumped at getting Target to move to Columbia Heights. Just read Jim Graham's web site, talking about passing emergency TIF measures to ensure Target came to D.C. What does the city get out of the deal? A parking lot that no one uses. How surprising that a parking lot next to a Metro station in a walkable area isn't used very much. Target is a big box that put a lot of pressure on businesses in Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Adams Morgan. The area has survived (and even thrived, perhaps), though. Mount Pleasant had shuttered shops before and will continue to until some serious efforts are made at promoting more commercial development.

Why yes to Target, and no to Wal-Mart? Is it because Target is more upscale? Is it because Columbia Heights was up-and-coming and the Target would be the linchpin of further gentrification? Why is it off the table to bring a different big box to a part of the city that would see a great benefit? Why not at least say the city would be open to working with Wal-Mart to create a destination area that was easily accessible?

Wal-Mart is by no means the perfect retailer. However, it could provide a much needed resource to many District residents who are in need. To not even consider it as an option is foolish.


  1. Fact is, people protesting Wal-Mart in the District are the types of people that would never go there, anyway. They have the luxury to protest Wal-Mart, because they can afford to go to Whole Foods or the Yes! Organic Market. Many of the lower-income residents in DC do not.

    I remember the story in the Post a few months ago about how the homeless in DC are constantly overcharged for things like milk and bread because corner stores are the only option for them.

    Yuppies need not worry because the stores they frequent attract a completely different clientele than Wal-Mart does, thus they will not be affected. Again, they have the luxury to complain about this, whereas others do not.

    This whole thing sort of reminds me of the argument the yuppies will use when lower-income residents complain about gay marraige: it does not affect you, so leave it alone.

  2. I hate Wal-Mart. Every time I've been in one I've had to seek therapy afterwards to deal with suicidal thoughts. I have only shopped at one when no alternative was available.

    That said, anyone who opposes an actual business that will bring actual jobs, tax dollars, and services to DC is insane. Especially after Target. While I was always 100% in favor of Target, is there a single hippie idealist moron in Columbia Heights who still hates it? It's f*cking awesome.

    I don't think we should subsidize them. Target is obviously enormously successful. Most of us knew it would be, but that store was a pioneer, a totally untested model of a big-box store in a walking community. It worked. Really damn well. Wal-Mart obviously knows that, and the DC government knows that. We should be making retailers BID for the rights to build a store at Poplar Point.

  3. Jamie, I agree to a certain extent. I don't think Target's model in Columbia Heights was completely pioneering, there had been big-box forays into Manhattan previously.

    But yes, it did work. It has turned out great, but who really doubted that? What didn't turn out great was the District getting to claim ownership of a parking garage no one uses. Hooray for us!

    On one hand perhaps Wal-Mart and other businesses should have to compete to open at Poplar Point. On the other hand, of course these retailers will demand incentives when the city hands them out like candy to any big name that happens to be appealing (e.g. Target, baseball, the absurdness of trying to get the Redskins back).

  4. It is fairly commonplace for localities to offer incentives to large companies like Wal-Mart that build stores. I wouldn't mind tax breaks for Wal-Mart, but I recently migrated out of the district for VA. So who cares what I think. But Wal-Mart will create jobs, offer low priced goods, and provide tax revenue in a part of the city that hasn't traditionally been a large tax base. Whatever you think about Wal-Mart, it seems like a win-win-win for residents-government-Walmart.

  5. I'm no fan of Wal-Mart but if they want to open a store in DC the government has no right to stop them. That said, the government should not give one dime of tax money (or tax breaks, subsides, etc) to Wal-Mart or any other for-profit enterprise (with the possible exception of locally owned small busniesses.) If Wal-Mart thinks a DC store will be profitable they will open one without the taxpayers footing the bill but a Wal-Mart does not provide the kind of benefit to the comunity that would justify government subsides of store that wouldn't exist without them.

  6. At a time like this, the city shouldn't be financing any private endeavor. If Walmart wants to build, let them do so at their own cost and risk.

    My biggest complaint for Walmart in the city is the expanse of asphalt that comes with it. The Target/Bed Bath and Beyond/other crap isn't so bad because its walkable and the parking is hidden so that it interfaces with the neighborhood. If Wallyworld can come up with a decent urban design that doesn't destroy the community, then I'm all for it. But I will believe that when I see it.

  7. Yeah, from what I understand, most if not all Wal-Marts are subsidized by the areas that they're built in. So considering how much damn money that company makes, I'm glad Fenty is refusing to subsidize them. Any possible benefits that they can bring to the area shouldn't require a payment from the city since they'll be making assloads of money if they pull it off.