A church is developing a Wal-Mart project in Pennsylvania with the unlikely goal of helping small businesses in the area. You might call that blind faith. On May 30, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the owner of a Giant Eagle grocery store in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania has decided to go public with her opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart superstore on Robinson Boulevard that involves the use of public subsidies, and lobbying by some very powerful politicians. 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 148,000 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 (JOZ).” “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.” This week, the Pittsburg Tribune-Review reports that the politicians got their Wal-Mart and the Jobs and Opportunity Zone. A nonprofit group is developing the site at the former East Hills Shopping Center, and elected officials are expected to gather by October to break ground for the new store. “We believe this project will be a great economic catalyst for the community, both in terms of revitalizing what has long been a blighted area, and creating jobs and career opportunities for residents,” said the head of Operation Nehemiah, which is handling the development on behalf of Petra Ministries, which owns the 70-acre parcel. Ironically, Petra has its headquarters in a former Zayre’s department store building. The group says it is a private company whose line of business is “non-denominational church.” The religious group is not only pushing a Wal-Mart, but a Lowe’s big box on the site. The double-box plaza is being called “The Summit.” The town of Penn Hills is also in line to get a second Wal-Mart supercenter off Saltsburg Road. Penn Hills, with a population of 45,000, has just about enough population to support one supercenter.
The East Hills Wal-Mart will be closely watched as one of the few JOZ projects in the nation. Wal-Mart has made big promises to spend thousands of dollars to help businesses, chambers of commerce and other groups by sponsoring seminars with information on how to boost business and deal with Wal-Mart itself. “The idea that Wal-Mart is trying to be a good corporate citizen, by working with the smaller businesses in the area to help them continue to be successful, fits well with the values of our ministry,” the head of Petra Ministries said. The three towns of Penn Hills, Wilkinsburg and Pittsburg will share taxes from the plaza, and share responsibility for provide police and fire protection to the site. Local officials see the Wal-Mart/Lowe’s deal as an important “shot in the arm” for the neighborhood. In April of 2007, 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. If this is how Wal-Mart’s Jobs and Opportunity Zone works, so far the only jobs are at Wal-Mart, and the real money from The Summit is going to Petra Ministries, the landowner. Readers are urged to email Penn Hills Mayor Anthony DeLuca at [email protected], with this message: “Dear Mayor DeLuca, Your slogan, ‘A new day and a new way’ for Penn Hills has led to a parade of big box stores for Penn Hills. These stores will never create an economic recovery for your community, because most of their sales will be transferred from existing merchants. This is not ‘a new way’ for Penn Hills, is just more sprawl, crime, and traffic congestion. I urge you to truly find a new way, and support your local businesses, and reject the unsustainable big box solution. The first step to take is to enact a size cap on future retail stores, so you don’t keep repeating the same big mistakes again and again. The second is to vow never again to provide taxpayer’s subsidies for retail developments. Outside of Petra Ministries, Wal-Mart and Lowe’s, no one else will benefit from the Jobs and Opportunity Zone. It’s just a Sprawl Zone that many of your residents did not want.”