The City Council waded through 3 hours of mostly negative testimony against Wal-Mart’s plans to move into Queens, New York at a public hearing this past week on big box stores. No one from Wal-Mart even bothered to show up. What the City Council heard instead was speaker after speaker berating the retailer’s labor practices, low, everyday wages, poor health insurance benefits, and negative impacts on small businesses. State Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin (D-Flushing) told the Council, “Should Wal-Mart succeed with this plan, it will prove to be an economic disaster for our entire city. Our battle against Wal-Mart is not lower prices. The true legacy of Wal-Mart is lower living standards for hardworking Americans and those overseas. Studies show that for every two jobs created by a Wal-Mart store, the community loses three jobs. When Wal-Mart moves into a neighborhood, it devours local businesses and lowers community living standards.” The public hearing was sponsored by Councilman James Sanders, Jr. (D-Laurelton), who chairs the Council’s Economic Development Committee. Wal-Mart was invited to the hearing, but sent only a letter noting that “Wal-Mart is eager to make New York City its next retail frontier. We believe Wal-Mart would be an extraordinary asset to the local economy.” Wal-Mart used Wal-Math to project the new store would bring 300 to 350 jobs that pay rates “competitive with those offered by similar retailers in the area.” Wal-Mart forgot to subtract from its total any jobs that would be lost when the retailer captures millions in sales from existing merchants. The Councilwoman that represents Rego Park, Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), testified that she told Wal-Mart, “This is New York City. It is not Main Street America. To live in New York, people have to be able to make a living. If you want to come to New York City, you are going to have to make some big changes.” According to an account of the hearing in the News Ledger newspaper, Kirk Swanson of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union testified that “Wal-Mart is not coming to New York City because they have decided to live up to our community’s standards. Instead, they are gambling that they can drag us down to theirs.” Swanson recommended that the Council pass a moratorium on new box store applications and use the moratorium time to conduct an economic impact study of big box stores. Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean American Small Business Service Center of New York, said mom-and-pop stores would suffer from Wal-Mart’s presence. “It is wrong to assume that there is a compatibility between box stores and neighborhood mom- and-pop stores, that they can co-exist. Evidence gathered over the years in various cities shows box stores categorically cannibalize retail markets. Box stores would suburbanize the unique character of New York. How can we allow the more than 400 district neighborhoods of New York City to disappear?” Kim asked. The public hearing reached no conclusions, and more hearings are expected to take place.
How arrogant is it of Wal-Mart to describe Manhattan as the “next retail frontier,” as if it was just another place to plant the Wal-Mart flag? The City Council would do well to take up the suggestion of a moratorium on big box development. Home Depot recently opened up a store on West 23rd Streeet in Manhattan. The retailer was required to leave the facade of the historic building alone, and the result is far better than the kind of characterless box building that Wal-Mart offers communities. Queens and the other boroughs need to step back and reinvent their zoning rules to make sure that suburban prototypes do not get built in urban neighborhoods, as happened with the Wal-Mart proposal in another urban area, New Orleans. For local contacts in Queens who are fighting the Wal-Mart, contact [email protected]