How Walmart beat the critics in Washington
It looks as though Walmart will succeed in opening the four proposed stores in the District of Columbia that were reported on in New Urban Network last March. So it's worth looking at how, despite concerted opposition to Walmart in cities like New York and Chicago, the company has been able to defang the opposition in the nation's capital.
In "The Selling of Walmart," in Washington City Paper, reporter Lydia DePillis identifies several reasons why the world's largest retailer "was ready for a big fight in D.C." but "didn't get one."
The article provides an in-depth look at the care with which Walmart pursued potential allies in Washington and undercut its critics.
Clearly, money and lobbying helped. DePillis observes:
Superlobbyist David Wilmot had been on retainer since early 2006, collecting $290,000 over the next four years to lobby on legislation that affected Walmart’s interests (like D.C.’s 2006 living-wage bill—which passed, but only applies to government-funded jobs). For the new push, the company hired a team including attorney Claude Bailey, who handled legal matters for construction of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the Verizon Center, and Nationals stadium. He and consultant Brett Greene, who managed the finances for [current Mayor Vincent] Gray’s 2006 D.C. Council chairman campaign, worked community meetings, exchanging handshakes with local officials. For on-the-ground assistance in Ward 7, Walmart brought on local Councilmember Yvette Alexander’s campaign manager, Darryl Rose, and her campaign treasurer, Derek Ford.
There was plenty of outreach to community members. DePillis points out:
In the middle of last year, Walmart held a couple of focus groups at THEARC in Congress Heights, paying selected residents $100 and a boxed dinner to participate. According to Ward 8 community activist Phil Pannell, who was asked to take part, the subject was “economic development.” But all the questions had to do with Walmart. Soon afterward, the company commissioned a poll of 800 District residents, finding 73 percent in favor of “one or more” Walmarts in the District (a Quinnipiac poll found the favorability rating at 57 percent in New York City). Those results, in turn, were printed on mailers that went out across the city, and given as talking points to T-shirted canvassers who are still out touting the benefits of fresh produce and cheap generic drugs.
Walmart also worked to influence the established media:
The firm’s national head of government affairs, Leslie Dach, met The Washington Post’s editorial board; a glowing editorial followed. Walmart bought ads everywhere from National Public Radio to The Washington Informer. Favorable clips from places like the extremist website NetRightDaily and Fox News were collected on the company’s D.C.-specific website, which also contains rebuttals to anti-Walmart research, videos of D.C. residents excited about Walmart’s arrival, and specifics touting the virtues of every different District location.
The masterstrokes were subtler: Long-planned branding opportunities that just happened to reach fruition when the company needed to buff its image. In 2008, Walmart underwrote a traveling exhibit on the African-American experience, organized by NPR host Tavis Smiley. It happened to arrive in D.C. this spring. At a black-tie opening reception at the National Geographic Museum, Smiley sang Walmart’s praises to the leading figures in D.C.’s black community. Gray was on hand, posing for snapshots with top corporate execs.
Community and minority groups shared in Walmart's seeming benevolence. Even the First Lady was recruited for an event that would redound to the company's benefit. Says DePillis:
On top of $200,000 doled out over the last five years, it pledged $50,000 to the Greater Washington Urban League, whose March gala featured Walmart regional general manager Alex Barron as honorary chair. A $400,000 gift to D.C. Hunger Solutions for fresh school breakfasts led to them pictures of tykes at a Trinidad charter school munching on grapes and bagels. In the biggest coup of all, first lady Michelle Obama appeared on a Walmart-logoed stage to kick off an effort to make their house brands healthier.
.... Late last year, Lori Kaplan, executive director of the Latin American Youth Center, was invited to the Walmart Foundation’s downtown offices, where executives asked her to submit a grant application for her organization. She got it: $125,000 for youth summer enrichment, a lifeline at a time when the District’s Summer Youth Employment Program had been slashed dramatically.
....In the end, Walmart’s charm offensive even made a convert out of Manny Hidalgo, director of the Latino Economic Development Corporation, which has long recieved support from Walmart-owned Sam's Club.
DePillis credits Walmart with choosing to place three of the four planned stores in areas devoid of commercial vitality. This made it hard for opponents to argue that something better might arrive if Walmart were kept out.
One of the planned stores, at 1st and H Streets NW, will be in an urban, mixed-use development. Another will not have a mix of uses and will be only one story, but at least it is expected to come to the street and to have its parking underground. The other two lack the kinds of traits that are found in new urbanist and smart growth development. Residents of low-income areas, however, have seemed happy to have a large, low-priced retailer comes to their parts of the city.
That doesn't mean that everyone in Washington is pleased. "Many residents throughout the city are upset about the way our officials and others have been purchased by the corporation," one reader wrote to City Paper. "They have bought silence from some, and pitchmen in others like Kaplan and Hidalgo."
Another reader said the downside of big-box retailing has gone largely unrecognized during Walmart's Washington campaign. It's fair to say that not many Washingtonians have read the critical findings assembled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in "Key Studies on Wal-Mart and Big Box Retail."
A City Paper reader — noting Walmart's claim that the four locations will create 1200 retail jobs — pointed out that there are studies across the US "indicating that 1.5 jobs are lost from small businesses closing once a new Wal-Mart opens for every job created by that same new Wal-Mart location."
Another reader asserted: "Local businesses keep local funds in local neighborhoods, and the patrons' dollars don't often make the trip to billionaire CEOs in Alabama or Chinese manufacturers with dire labor and environmental records." But that was rebutted by a reader who argued, "Suppose we had a healthy mix of small businesses in that area. How many jobs would they generate and what kind of wages would they pay? Would they provide health insurance? Would our work force be better off?"
One critic of Walmart said it's premature to conclude that the company's plans are guaranteed to be carried out. "Not one permit or license has been issued, no Large Tract Review or PUD approved, no ground has been broken," that reader emphasized.
Nonetheless, it seems that Walmart has overwhelmed the local opposition so far. DePillis's 4,300-word report does a good job of explaining why.