Old Bridge, New Jersey is located 36 miles from downtown Manhattan. The community has just over 66,000 people, and a Wal-Mart discount store on Route 9. In fact, there are 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Old Bridge — none of them superstores. Wal-Mart is working hard in New Jersey to either expand this “nest” of discount stores into supercenters, or else just build new supercenters and leave the old discount stores empty. The Old Bridge Planning Board is in the middle of taking testimony on a Wal-Mart supercenter project submitted by developer Greg Matzel. The proposed site is roughly a 7 minute drive from the existing Wal-Mart. One Planning board member was quoted by the Sayreville Suburban newspaper as saying, “I like the project, I just don’t want it coming into our neighborhoods.” The site Wal-Mart wants is a part of a 500 acre “Crossroads” redevelopment project that is the focal point of development in this township. Currently the Wal-Mart site is a 53 acre golf center, on land not owned by the township. So far, the project has drawn vocal criticism from local residents, and what the paper described as “union workers from around the state.” At last week’s Planning Board meeting, much of the discussion revolved around whether one or two entrances were needed into the site. “I don’t want to turn it into a main drag, so to speak,” the Planning Board Chairman said. “The existing Wal- Mart is one of the biggest parking lots in town.” The Board is clearly concerned over the impact of the increased traffic volume the new store would bring, and complained that the developer should have done an analysis of traffic at the existing Wal-Mart to get a sense of what could happen at the proposed project. The township and this developer already have a confrontational history. In 2006, Matzel sued the township after they rejected his proposal to build 450 residential units. As part of a legal settlement, the township agreed to change the parcel’s zoning to commercial, which allows a big box development. So out of this lawsuit, the developer settled for the possibility of a very lucrative sale to Wal-Mart. “I think the one thing [board members and residents] are forgetting is that this is a settlement between us and the township,” Matzel said. “There are always going to be a handful of residents who are opposed to the project.” The land in question is also riddled with wetlands, but the developer said he can destroy up to an acre of wetlands under New Jersey law. Local residents — more than a handful — protested the project by speaking and singing out against what they called the “Wal-Monster.” They gathered outside of the town building where the hearing was taking place. “That’s our message to Wal-Mart — you’re not welcome here,” said a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. One resident who lives near the site told the Suburban, “We have plenty of Wal-Marts. We do not need another.” Outside the municipal building, the Solidarity Singers of the New Jersey Industrial Union Council sang songs about Wal-Mart’s profiteering from foreign sweatshops, with lyrics about the retailer’s anti union policies. But for Wal-Mart, the presence of protestors at their hearings is just the same old song.
A Wal-Mart spokesman responded to his singing opponents with a written statement to the media. “I think it’s important to note that more than 90% of American households will shop at a Wal-Mart this year. Customers across the country are overwhelmingly favorable of Wal-Mart, but there is a very vocal minority of people who have made it their business to criticize our company. With more than 130 million shoppers each and every week, it is our customers who ‘vote’ for us every day by spending their hard-earned dollars in our stores.” The retailer’s spokesman said Wal-Mart employees “have rejected union representation for years.” The corporation is clearly worried that 2009 could be the year of passage for the Employee Free Choice Act, which gives workers the option of gathering a majority of signature cards to unionize, as an alternative to a secret ballot. The spokesman said Wal-Mart opposes anything that would interfere with employees’ right to a secret ballot. “We have always operated in a manner that makes third-party representation unnecessary. However, we do not make value judgments or criticize those who support labor organizations.” But local residents told the newspaper that “Wal-Mart is sucking the life out of those downtown areas. It’s killing everybody. If the trend continues … we’ll have ghost towns.” Other residents suggested that if this new store opens up, the ‘old’ Wal-Mart minutes away will close. Developer Matzel denied that would happen. “Our intent is to keep both sites open,” the Wal-Mart PR spokesman said, but then he hedged his bets: “But [we] will continue to review and re-evaluate that option in the future. Grocery is a critical part of the merchandise offering that our customers want and expect at a Wal-Mart. It is an area where we are able to save our customers a lot of money by offering unbeatable prices.” As far as the sensitive wetland areas on the site, Wal-Mart said environmental issues are a priority for the company, and pointed to its product packaging policies and energy efficiency as examples. But rather than address the environmental land use issues at the site, the spokesman said, “At Wal-Mart, we know that being an efficient and profitable business and being a good steward of the environment go hand in hand. As a result, we have established three goals for our company: To be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain our resources and the environment.” All of this has nothing to do with wetlands in Old Bridge. Readers are urged to email the Mayor of Old Bridge, James T. Phillips, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Phillips, Your community has 14 Wal-Marts within 20 miles. Even someone addicted to Chinese imports does not need 14 Wal-Mart within an easy drive. The site on Route 18 that Wal-Mart wants now in Old Bridge is just minutes from its existing store on Route 9. You may be aware that Wal-Mart has been systematically shutting down its discount stores to open up supercenters. Ten years ago in New Jersey, there were 16 discount stores, and no supercenters. Today, there are 45 discount stores, and only 1 supercenter. Outside of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont, New Jersey has the fewest number of supercenters in the nation. While that’s good, it means that Wal-Mart is going to be criss-crossing the state over the next few years, shutting down discount stores, or expanding them. If you approve a supercenter on Route 18, you’re going to have an empty discount store on Route 9 — and these “dark stores” are not easy to fill. All that a new Wal-Mart will do is increase traffic in Old Bridge, increase crime, and shut down the ‘old’ store and one or two grocery stores too. This is not a form of economic development. Wal-Mart makes nothing. They just sell Chinese imports that end up in your landfills. I urge you to testify against this project — as other New Jersey mayors have done — and tell your Planning Board that you don’t want Wal-Mart to cross Old Bridge when they come to it.”