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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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More than 250 people packed a church basement to rally against the proposal by Selig Enterprises, the Atlanta-based developer and property owner. - DUSTIN CHAMBERS
  • Dustin Chambers
  • More than 250 people packed a church basement to rally against the proposal by Selig Enterprises, the Atlanta-based developer and property owner.

In response to Selig's plans, a group of residents in the adjacent Clairmont Heights, Decatur Heights, and Medlock Park neighborhoods have mobilized under the moniker Good Growth DeKalb and promised to battle the proposal. On recent Fridays, members picketed at the six-point intersection where the Suburban Plaza Walmart will stand. The group — which at a recent meeting raised more than $1,000 in contributions in less than two hours — has hired an attorney with experience fighting the big-box retailer and started brainstorming alternate uses for the property. (One idea: capitalize on its strip-mall past and returning it to its 1950s retro glory.)

"We've got all these stores that are serving the area," says Melanie Parker, an artist who lives nearby. "People are happy with what they're getting already. We don't have a need for this."

Simmering under each and every claim is the fear that the retail chain, with its low prices, cutthroat business style, advanced supply chain, and deep pockets, will cripple existing businesses. Business owners like Tony Powers of the Intown Ace Hardware a few hundred feet from Suburban Plaza, and Bill Horton, who manages the downtown Athens pharmacy his family's owned since the 1940s, both sell items that will most likely be replicated by the big-box retailer. Both say that they excel at providing something Walmart can't match: customer service. As Power says: "You can't walk in a Walmart and ask someone what the mixed ratio is for a gallon of Roundup."

Walmart typically offers two defenses: its stores offer a high volume of low-priced goods that could save families and small businesses money, and nearby stores benefit from the additional foot traffic. It's the "everyone wins" argument. Study after study has said that's not the case — Walmart critics usually say that for every job Walmart creates, one-and-a-half retail jobs are lost in the community. And probably just as many studies have cast doubt on that statistic. But when it's framed simply as an argument about jobs or labor issues, the debate misses the important question: Is what's being proposed, regardless of brand, right for the community? (Many Athenians interviewed by CL readily admit that they'd tolerate a Walmart on the site if it was of appropriate scale and it offered groceries.)

"If it were Home Depot, would people be opposing it?" asks Fishman, the author of The Wal-Mart Effect. "If it were any [national brand], the questions would be the same: How do we smartly knit this kind of national chain in a community that doesn't have them now? And that goes for Olive Garden or ChiChi's or TGIFriday as much it would go for the Walmart."

Based on what's been proposed, the size and scope of the Selig developments most likely already fall under current zoning requirements. But neither proposal is a done deal and probably require some form of approval by the county — and, because a road fronting Suburban Plaza is overseen by the state, the Georgia Department of Transportation.

Residents and existing businesses (especially those surrounded by empty lots) that want to prevent Walmart and other big-box retailers from encroaching on the tight-knit communities they've nurtured through white flight (decades ago) and gentrification (more recently) could push elected officials to re-examine what is permitted.

Unfortunately for the residents fighting the current proposals, Athens planning officials only recently recommended that the city limit the size of retail businesses, which could include the Selig concept. DeKalb recently wasn't selected for a planning grant which could have reimagined what kind of development would be permitted in the area surrounding Suburban Plaza. While such a move might not be the life preserver for which Walmart critics had hoped, it could prevent the opening of other big boxes.

In the meantime, residents wait for Walmart's next move.

Arguments about the aesthetic beauty of national retailers must seem pretty precious in the food desert of Vine City, the historic yet beleaguered neighborhood less than two miles west of downtown's skyscrapers.

On Christmas Eve in 2009, Publix locked its doors for good on the store in Historic Westside Village, a mixed-use revitalization effort in Vine City that hit the skids when the housing market tanked. Residents, many of whom are elderly or living on low incomes, lacked convenient access to fresh food. For months, city officials and Russell, the village's well-connected developer, sought a new tenant to move into the shell of the grocery store and serve the impoverished community, which was now a food desert.

"Every grocer that was out there was solicited," says Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr.

Almost one year later, Mayor Kasim Reed, city officials, and community members braved frigid temperatures to announce that a company had bit: Walmart. (Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Sam's Club, a Walmart subsidiary, is a graduate of Spelman College, which is part of the nearby Atlanta University Center. Incentives likely also played a role, CL has learned, although could not confirm before publication.) Rather than voice concern about the big-box retailer's impact on the hair salon across the street or the restaurant a few doors down, residents worried about whether the company would be able to turn a profit, combat crime, and remain in the neighborhood.

Thanks to negotiations over appropriate buffers between the proposed Walmart, which will expand the Publix's existing store to more than 70,000 square feet, construction has been delayed. Nonetheless, many residents remain optimistic.

"It's welcome," says Makeda Johnson, the chairwoman of Neighborhood Planning Unit that includes Vine City and English Avenue. "We are a food desert. We have people living here who don't have access to transportation and to fresh food."

Young isn't too concerned about the junior anchors moving in and filling the nearby retail strip with franchises before the neighborhood even gets a chance to rekindle its entrepreneurial spirit.

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