One of Wal-Mart’s third-tier public relations efforts, the “Jobs and Opportunity Zone” (JOZ) program, made it into the news this week in the context of Washington, D.C. politics. Last year, the retailer created the JOZ program in 10 places in America, to offer “an even greater economic boost to the people and the neighborhoods that need Wal-Mart the most.” Each JOZ has in its target area a Wal-Mart store as the hub, and a “host of local businesses and suppliers” with which Wal-Mart will work to increase job creation and economic opportunity in surrounding neighborhoods. As part of the JOZ, Wal-Mart says it will partner with local chambers of commerce, business groups, minority and women-owned businesses “to create thousands of jobs.” One of the “boosts” that Wal-Mart offers is a seminar entitled “How to Do Business with Wal-Mart” sessions for area businesses. The 10 sites include the West side of Chicago, Illinois; Portsmouth, Virginia; Richmond California; Sanger, California; El Mirage, Arizona; Cleveland,Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; Decatur, Georgia; East Hills, Pennsylvania; and Landover Hills, Maryland. This last site is located within the Washington, D.C. beltway. According to the Washington Times newspaper, Wal-Mart is using the JOZ of its Landover Hills store to reach into Washington, D.C. to “help” businesses inside the nation’s capitol. Even though their store is in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Wal-Mart spokesman told The Times, “It makes sense to partner with D.C.” because many of the Maryland store’s customers and workers come from Washington. So Wal-Mart this week offered 5 businesses in the District the chance to get free in-store advertising at Wal-Mart, plus other “business assistance” not defined. Every three months, Wal-Mart chooses another 5 businesses to help. The 5 businesses chosen in Washington, D.C. included a barbeque restaurant, a coffee shop, a caf??, another restaurant, and a construction company. In other words, companies that have little or no overlap with Wal-Mart’s product line. The list of businesses, it turns out, were suggested to Wal-Mart by a D.C. politician, Ward 5 city councilor Harry Thomas, Jr. These businesses are 5 to 7 miles away from the Wal-Mart store. Wal-Mart critics suggest that this PR image campaign is an attempt by the retailer to score some points with the D.C. City Council, without spending much money. So far Wal-Mart has faced a decidedly unsupportive City Council. In fact, Councilor Thomas was one of several Councilors who introduced a bill a year ago that would have required retailers with stores larger than 75,000 s.f. or a parent company with gross revenue of $1 billion or more, to pay its employees a “living wage,” which at that time was $11.75 per hour (in December of 2006 Wal-Mart’s average wage in Maryland they claimed was $10.26 per hour). Thomas’ bill was similar to one filed in Chicago, which was vetoed by Mayor Richard Daley. Councilor Thomas told the Washington Times that he didn’t see Wal-Mart’s gesture to help 5 businesses in Thomas’ district as a way to thaw the ice between elected officials and Wal-Mart, and position itself better for any attempt to site a store in Thomas’ district. “I’m open to many opportunities for my ward,” Thomas said, adding that he pursues any corporation or organization that offers assistance to his ward. Thomas told the newspaper,however, that he thinks it’s “inevitable” that some day Wal-Mart will try to open a store in the District.
Wal-Mart tried to open a store in 2004 in the Brentwood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., but dropped those plans on the excuse that the site they chose didn’t meet store requirements. But the fact was, the political climate in Washington was very icy. Wal-Mart says this week that although they do not have any specific sites in mind, that they are “always interested in jurisdictions that provide further access to our customer base.” The Jobs and Opportunity Zone thus far has shown no evidence of creating “thousands of jobs” anywhere. It is certain that holding seminars for businesses on how they can sell to Wal-Mart, or giving a few restaurants some in-store advertising is hardly a robust jobs or growth program. Like many other Wal-Mart initiatives, the JOZ program is more for media play than for economic development. If the Landover Hills program is any example, the only ‘boost’ these Zones are creating is the media lure that newspapers like the Washington Times bit on. Readers are urged to email D.C. Councilor Henry “Tommy” Thomas at [email protected] with the following message: “Councilor Thomas, I hope you will keep pushing your big box ‘living wage’ bill, and keep companies like Wal-Mart out of D.C. Their Jobs and Opportunity Zone program has no jobs and few opportunities. How pathetic is it, that this JOZ program was promoted as “creating thousands of jobs,” but what jobs have you seen created in Ward 5? Big deal: the company gives several small restaurants some advertising in their store. But what about decent paying jobs at their Landover Hills store? Wal-Mart’s Jobs and Opportunity Zone is in the Twilight Zone. Stand up for working people, and demand that Wal-Mart give its people a living wage with real health care benefits — or keep out of Ward 5.”