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Walmart cometh

The big-box retailer and progressive's worst enemy moves closer to the heart of metro Atlanta

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Carter Joseph saw firsthand what Walmart did to his hometown of Georgetown, S.C. The shuttered businesses, the bones of local stores that died when the big-box retailer opened a Supercenter just down the street.

"Walmart to me represents capitalism at its very worst," he said on Feb. 23 to a crowd of more than 250 people in the commons room of a church just half a mile north of Decatur. "Capitalism on steroids. Architecture at its worst."

Joseph lives less than one mile from Suburban Plaza, the mammoth shopping center which Selig Enterprises, the Atlanta-based developer, plans to redevelop with a 149,000-square-foot Supercenter as an anchor. Since news about the plan broke late last year, neighborhood residents have hammered out nonbinding agreements with the big-box retailer and developer over everything from bicycle racks to the location of wall signs. Others in this walkable, progressive burg (such as those in attendance tonight) have contributed more than $1,000 to hire a lawyer and spent Friday afternoons holding signs at the nearby intersection protesting Walmart.

Eyes wide with anger and fingers pointing to the ground in defiance, Joseph warned of doom should the big-box retailer join the neighborhood.

"They treat their employees like dirt," he said. "They treat their suppliers like dirt. And they'll treat this neighborhood like dirt, as they've treated countless towns and communities across this country."

Suburban Plaza isn't the only place where Walmart, which operates only five stores inside the Perimeter, has cast its gaze. Nearly 60 miles away in Athens, the college town — and even some of its progressive factions — has become divided over Selig's plans to transform several parcels on the edge of downtown into a 10-acre, mixed-use development that would most likely include a Walmart. Meanwhile, in Vine City, the historic and impoverished Atlanta neighborhood less than two miles from downtown's skyscrapers, the big-box retailer finally broke ground on an abandoned Publix it plans to expand into a store offering groceries, a pharmacy, and financial services.

After nearly 50 years of conquering rural and suburban America, Walmart has focused on its final frontier: U.S. cities. Since the early 2000s, the company has invested considerable political will (and cash) trying to elbow its way into urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The moves, which usually feature nasty drag-out fights with unions and agreements with neighborhood groups, ride on the promises of lower prices and more jobs. But after years of anti-Walmart websites, documentaries, and studies questioning whether the retailer's cutthroat business tactics and treatment of its employees are worth the cost savings, opponents are better prepared to push back against the mega-retailer that, according to one estimate, controls 33 percent of the grocery market. And for many — but not all — of the proposed stores, the battle to defend one's turf from terrible design, questionable labor policies, and low-cost goods that don't come from Target, has begun.

"This is a war," Donald Stack, a land-use attorney hired by the resident opposition group which wrangled the residents at the church on North Decatur Road. "It is a war for your community. It is a war for your property values. It is a war for your safety."

That may be true. But it's not a war that Walmart figures to lose unless circumstances change. The outcome may be inevitable for three reasons: the big-box retailer is no longer viewed by everyone as inherently evil; Atlanta's elected officials would be held accountable if they don't support the creation of jobs, no matter how menial; and Walmart has a tested blueprint for these scenarios.

That said, the debate over the real cost of low prices is important to each community and the city at large. And it has begun close to home.

In the early 2000s, Walmart, the company that built a billion-dollar business model by opening massive big-box stores and undercutting competitors' prices, started launching aggressive campaigns to open locations in inner-city areas. Walmart began experimenting with smaller store formats that could fit more neatly into dense urban areas, from the 42,000-square-foot "neighborhood market" model, or even smaller. It played nice with community residents and begrudgingly paid attention to labor unions. City-specific websites were also unveiled to, in the company's words, "help separate the fact from the fiction" by debunking studies and trumpeting local acts of corporate do-goodery. (Walmart registered WalmartAtlanta.com last November; the site is currently vacant.)

Chicago's now home to four Walmarts. In Washington, D.C., the store opened its first location inside the Beltway in 2007 and plans to open six more before the end of the year. Nowhere has the fight for falling prices been more heated than New York City, where, according to New York magazine, the company has spent more than $13 million on charitable causes since 2007. The retailer also has donated to politicians' pet projects and charities, including $4 million to a youth-employment program supported by the city council speaker and more than $380,000 to renovate the food bank.

"Walmart is unquestionably making more of a push for urban areas," says Charles Fishman, an investigative journalist and author of The Wal-Mart Effect. "If Walmart wants to grow in the U.S., the only place to grow is in cities."

"We are interested in urban areas," says Walmart Spokesman Bill Wertz. "But we're interested in rural areas as well. We're interested in being where our customers want us to be. ... It's a question of finding spots where all the factors come together and allow us to go forward. A lot depends on geography and other factors — including the interest of the community."

The big-box retailer's entry deeper into the heart of Atlanta — "We definitely have plans to grow in Atlanta," Walmart Southeastern Division Senior Vice President of Divisional Operations Greg Sullivan told the Atlanta Business Chronicle last July — comes without much of the baggage it has encountered in other cities.

Sure, local residents stomp their feet and roll out study after study about sweatshops, predatory pricing, impacts to local economies, and miserly wages paid to employees. But Georgia, much like the rest of the South where the big-box retailer blossomed, has weak labor laws that give unions less influence. And the Walmart has long been part of metro Atlanta's (and Georgia's) landscape. The Peach State is home to more than 135 Supercenters — 20 of which are within a 20-mile radius of Atlanta. And with low employment, food deserts, and vacant commercial real estate aplenty, it would appear that Walmart wouldn't exactly be turned away should it choose to venture closer to the heart of the metro region.

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