In the midst of this American recession, Wal-Mart is emphasizing the creation of “new” jobs to local communities. The retailer’s media office cranks out the same cookie cutter press releases emblematic of the same cookie cutter stores themselves. Local newspapers pick up these releases, and mindlessly print them as if these stores were adding value to the local economy. Wal-Mart understands what local elected officials want to hear: jobs. Cheap merchandise is a major selling point — but the primary focus remains on Wal-Mart as the engine of economic growth. Consider the following first lines from 4 Wal-Mart press releases issued on September 14, 2009:
?? MOUNT VERNON, Wash., Sept. 14, 2009 — A new Walmart opens this month in Mount Vernon, bringing approximately 320 planned new jobs.
?? WEATHERFORD, Okla., Sept 14, 2009 — A new Walmart opens this month in Weatherford, bringing approximately 130 planned new jobs
?? SULPHUR, Okla., Sept. 14, 2009 — A new Walmart opens this month in Sulphur, bringing approximately 150 planned new jobs
?? BROKEN ARROW, Okla., Sept. 14, 2009 — A new Walmart opens this month in Broken Arrow, bringing 350 new jobs
This past week in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, local officials repeated the myth of “new” jobs, following Wal-Mart’s script to the letter. The Daily Herald newspaper began its coverage of the opening of a renovated Wal-Mart with the following sentence: “Music and other sounds of merriment and celebration filled the Wal-Mart on Premier Boulevard in Roanoke Rapids Wednesday morning as store staff and management celebrated the store’s grand opening.” As with most other store openings, there was the local high school marching band, a parade of local officials who “gave their thoughts,” according to the Herald. The Mayor of this city of 16,400 people “told a story about some help he’d received at the store from an associate.” “It’s good to come out and see things happening in this city,” the Mayor told the crowd. “People don’t realize what Wal-Mart does for Roanoke Rapids. I talked to the district manager and asked how much money had been spent (in the community) and he said millions of dollars.” The head of the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce told Wal-Mart he appreciated “all you do for our community.” It is unlikely that managers from the Save A Lot or the two Food Lions appreciated the stand taken by their Chamber of Commerce, but this is standard fare for local Chambers. The end of the ceremony usually features Wal-Mart’s local manager passing out large, foam-board checks. In Roanoke Rapids, Wal-Mart manager Mickey Parker handed out a $2,000 check to the Business Education Partnership, $1,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, $1,000 to the Special Olympics and $1,500 to Operation Home Front, a group dedicated to providing financial aid to military families with members presently serving. The renovated Wal-Mart was praised for its “fresher, more open look,” and for being “more customer-friendly.” “This is your Walmart, enjoy it,” a spokesman for the company told the crowd.
The noise of the marching band, and the foam board checks are part of the “merriment” that comes with the opening of another economic drain on small town America. Wal-Mart depends on local officials who are economically illiterate. In 2008, Wal-Mart spent $2 billion on paid advertising, or $5.4 million a day. But the company also benefits from the good will created by non-critical newspaper articles and the rhetoric of local officials who believe sincerely that a new building going up must mean jobs and taxes. The inability to distinguish between ‘gross’ jobs and ‘net’ jobs is what causes much of the problem. Local officials see another grocery store opening, and fail to appreciate the fact that for every new Wal-Mart supercenter, one or two other grocery stores in the trade area will close. There are, after all, only 16,400 people in Roanoke Rapids. The same dynamic takes places in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and Mount Vernon, Washington. The Daily Herald newspaper in Roanoke Rapids treated the Wal-Mart renovated store as a time of celebration, when in fact its simply a form of economic dislocation that will change little after the foam board checks are passed out. To this degree, local newspapers and local officials are complicit in spreading economic illiteracy across the land, allowing Wal-Mart to repeat the disinformation that their superstores are spreading “planned new jobs” wherever they go. Wal-Mart has become the nation’s largest grocer largely by capturing market share from other players — not by creating ‘new’ jobs.
Wal-Mart knows that in order to sell these over-sized, land-consumptive projects, it has to rely on the jobs-and-taxes mantra. This will not happen in Roanoke Rapids, and it will not happen in Sulphur, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, renovated Wal-Mart stores are a form of faux economic development, and pump more money from the local economy than smaller, locally-owned stores. Readers are urged to send an email to the Daily Herald publisher, Ronnie Bell, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mr. Bell, I read your October 1st article ‘Valley benefits from Wal-Mart changes’ and wondered if your newspaper had considered some of the ill-effects from a renovated Wal-Mart, like the rise in traffic and crime. You quoted the Mayor, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, the manager at Wal-Mart — and all were gushing in their praise for this store. But where were the interviews with people who don’t shop at Wal-Mart because of its deplorable employment and environmental record? Where were the interviews with local merchants who are counting the months down before they close? Your newspaper promotes the myth that sprawling retail development in a small town is a form of econmic development, when in fact its largely economic displacement. Ironically, the renovated Wal-Mart will spend little or no money on column inches advertising in your newspaper, and could actually cause a drop in revenue for your paper. I hardly think that’s a cause for celebration.