Since 2007, Walmart has poured $13 million dollars into New York City non-profit organizations, helping to rescue Jamaica Bay’s deteriorating marshes, finance the middle school curriculum at Harlem Academy and fuel Harlem RBI’s Youth Empowerment Program—although the retailing behemoth has no stores in the city.
It’s no secret that the retailer is trying to tap into the New York City market.
“While we do not have any announced stores in the five boroughs, we think Walmart can be part of the solution for New York City customers who need jobs or want more affordable grocery options in their own neighborhood,” said Steven Restivo, Walmart’s director of community affairs.
But some uptowners are not buying it. In October, prompted by rumors that Walmart was considering a store at a vacant lot on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, about 75 Harlem residents and business owners gathered in protest at the location.
“Walmart does not create jobs, it destroys jobs,” said State Sen. Bill Perkins at the rally, sponsored by Walmart Free NYC, a coalition working to keep the retailer out of the city.
The corporation, no doubt anticipating such charges, has launched a website geared at winning over skeptical New Yorkers, walmartnyc.com, where browsers can find endless lists of job statistics and health benefits the city would purportedly gain if it welcomed Walmart.
Such tactics represent a seasoned strategy among big-box retailers facing stiff community opposition. Before opening its controversial store in East River Plaza, Target spent over 10 years wooing the uptown community, refurbishing an East Harlem elementary school library, financing admission to El Museo del Barrio and developing the Target East Harlem Community Garden on East 117th Street.
Last summer, Walmart announced that it would donate $20 million over five years to Chicago charities; a critical city council vote three days later paved the way for a store on the city’s South Side.
In this case, a Walmart Free NYC public research team had learned that Walmart was scouting the vacant Harlem lot, said Kasha Johnson, client support representative at Bill Lynch Associates, a consultant to the Harlem sector of Walmart Free NYC.
“They are in the form of having secret meetings, so you kind of have to do your own digging,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you don’t know.” The fall rally, she said, ”was planned as us being more proactive than reactive. It was us saying, ‘You don’t even want to know how we’ll react if we find out this is really what you want to do.’”
Walmart Free NYC is supported by labor unions including the United Food and Commercial Workers, which has repeatedly tried, but failed, to unionize Walmart stores across the country.
“Harlem is full of small businesses that are neighborhood institutions, but Walmart would take over the marketplace and give shoppers fewer retail options,” said Stephanie Yazig, director of Walmart Free NYC.
While Walmart claims to provide a broad assortment of goods at low prices, local employees and customers have mixed reactions to the prospect of a store uptown.
“I’ve never been in the store, but if they can offer fresh fruits and vegetables it could benefit the community and create jobs,” said Harlem native Jewel James. “I go downtown for my stuff. Obesity, salt, fat—this place is a poison for kids.”
Jay Daniels, an employee of King Party Center on Lenox Ave and 125th Street, admits to shopping at the store elsewhere and using its website, but doesn’t support a store in Harlem. “I like Walmart, just not here,” he said. “Walmart would shut mom-and-pop businesses down and spit them out piece by piece.”
Next door, Baji Shak, a cashier at Harlem 99¢ and Up, believes Walmart would attract more shoppers to the neighborhood. “This means it will be a busy area and will bring in more customers,” she said.
But Neene Ramp, a manager at Paramount, a local housewares store, says she can’t compete with Walmart’s prices. “They are cheaper and go down to a price I don’t think I can do here. It would be a hard competition,” she said.
She has a point: At the $1 Dollar Depot on St. Nicholas Avenue and 125thStreet, a tube of Colgate toothpaste sells for $3.99, while a two-pack sells for $3.28 on Walmart’s website. A 28-ounce bottle of Pine-Sol sells for $2.99 in the store, two cents more than Walmart’s 48-ounce bottle.
“The reality is that smaller businesses have to pool their resources and local merchants need to get in the habit of buying from local stores, even if it costs more,” said Larry Nickens, 47, a Harlem native.
“They have to put their money where their mouth is,” he said. “We have to take things like this more seriously before the fact than after the fact.”
Jobs are a major concern in Harlem. According to the State Department of Labor, the city’s unemployment rate was at 9 percent in October.
A big-box store would bolster the job market, said Ernest Jackson, senior director of Strive, a nonprofit East Harlem employment service. “It would make more jobs available for residents,” he said. ”It would bring a different alternative to the neighborhood.”
“There is Marshall’s and CVS here; what is the difference? I don’t see anything wrong with Walmart,” said Brad Bathgate, a local resident. “People get upset with changes in Harlem but change is good, not always bad. “