It’s not often that merchants stand up and fight openly against Wal-Mart, but the owner of a Giant Eagle grocery store in Penns Hills, Pennsylvania has decided to go public with her opposition to a proposed superstore on Robinson Boulevard that involves the use of public subsidies, and lobbying by some very powerful politicians. Several weeks ago, Debbie Hickman, who opened the Giant Eagle on Frankstown road in 2002, sent a letter to Wal-Mart asking them to withdraw from their project. The Arkansas-based retailer told the media it was proceeding with plans to open a 150,000 s.f. store in 2009 in the former East Hills Shopping Center. This Wal-Mart project has been in the works for several years, but the company admitted its plans only last February. The proposed superstore will border the communities of Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg, and Pittsburgh, and is part of Wal-Mart public relations effort known as the “Jobs and Opportunity Zone.” “The plan is to help local businesses prosper by providing resources that will allow them to tailor their business model to attract customers,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman. “Independent businesses have an enormous advantage over chain retailers when it comes to customizing what they offer consumers.” Wal-Mart said it chose the East Hills site after “heavy lobbying” by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, Gov. Ed Rendell and Allegheny County officials. Although the jobs and opportunities appear to be mostly for Wal-Mart, the rhetoric from the retailer is that it will create 10 of these “Zones” across the nation in order to provide help for small businesses in the area. Wal-Mart will provide free in-store radio announcements and buy newspaper ads for 5 area businesses, and once a year will give them a copy of Wal-Mart’s “Trends Reports.” The company says it will hold seminars for small businesses, and work with the local chamber of commerce to promote small retailers. In response to local opposition, Wal-Mart told the Pittsburg Tribune-Review, “A lot of elected officials reached out to us to open a store.” These officials not only reached out to Wal-Mart, they reached into the public purse as well. The town of Penn Hills committed $350,000 in federal funds to redevelop housing near the East Hills shopping center, and Allegheny County added another $1.6 million to demolish the old shopping center — something which is usually paid for by the new owner, in this case, Wal-Mart. The retailer had asked the town to spend public money to make East Hills “into a safer and more attractive community,” according to the newspaper. This resulted in a nearly $2 million infusion of public money to give Wal-Mart a competitive advantage over its small business rivals it now seeks to “help.” One of those rivals will be right across the street. “I’m not gonna lie, I’m worried that having a Wal-Mart so close could hurt us,” Bob Cooper, the owner of Cooper’s Animal Supplies for the past 36 years told the Tribune-Review. “I can see a lot of customers going across the street to save a buck or two on a bag of Purina dog food. I think it will be hard to compete with a company that big on price.”
In April, Sprawl-Busters commissioned roughly 16,200 phone calls in the Penn Hills, Pittsburg, and Wilkinsburg area regarding this proposed Wal-Mart project, and its public funding. Our survey found that 63% of those polled in Wilkinsburg supported the use of taxpayers dollars to help build the Wal-Mart, but only 26% of all respondents in Wilkinsburg would support government subsidies even if it meant the local Giant Eagle would go out of business. In Pittsburg, only 33% of those called supported the use of taxpayer dollars to build a Wal-Mart. A mere 12% said they would support government subsidies even if it meant the Giant Eagle would close. In Penn Hills polling, Sprawl-Busters found that only 33% support the use of taxpayer’s dollars to build a Wal-Mart, and 23% would support the building of this Wal-Mart even if it meant the Giant Eagle would go out of business. The Penn Hills Planning Commission is scheduled to review the Wal-Mart plan at its June 28th. meeting.