In the Shadow of Walmart

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 31, 2011
TEED OFF Darnell Williams is chairman of a key Dudley Square economic-growth committee and president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. Seen above (second from left) playing golf with a Walmart executive, he’s drawn accusations of conflict of interest from local activists.

In a damaged economy, it seems that pols would be insane to reject a company that delivers jobs and cheap groceries. If you ask Roxbury residents if they want a Walmart, most say yes. Yet Jackson's sentiments are shared by nearly every Roxbury politician and community leader. From local businesses like the Haley House Café to the Dudley teen-empowerment nonprofit Project Hip-Hop, stakeholders say Walmart doesn't jibe with the direction that Roxbury is moving in.

The lone exception to that consensus — other than the Boston Globe and Herald, which seem dogged in their determination to land Dudley a big-box store — is Darnell Williams, the 11-year president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (ULEM).

"Advocacy for job growth and economic development remains front and center to our work," Williams says about his openness to Walmart. "We have advocated that the unemployment and under-employment in the black community warrants a discussion about permanent job growth and potential construction jobs for a community that desperately needs it."

Walmart opponents have called bullshit on Williams and his job-creation sound bites. They allege that he's shilling for the retail giant, despite a glaring conflict of interest: Williams chairs the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee — a Boston Redevelopment Authority board charged with sketching "a framework to guide change and economic growth" in the area, and a body that will be vital to any Walmart project.

At the same time, Walmart donated $50,000 to the ULEM this year, and co-sponsored its recent national convention in Boston, creating the appearance of a possible quid pro quo. A June 7 photo, snapped at the Dedham Country and Polo Club, didn't help: it shows Williams at a Walmart–hosted golf tournament, posing with the company's Boston director of public affairs and government relations. The two even played as part of the same foursome: Walmart Team I.

"I understand nonprofits needing and taking that sponsorship," says State Representative Carlos Henriquez, whose district abuts Dudley. "I'm okay with that — but not if they're involved in the process that determines whether Walmart comes here or not."

Advancing the speculative dialogue, in July the Boston Business Journal reported that Walmart had tapped the Hub-based Dartmouth Company to scout locations for stores ranging in size from 15,000 to 150,000 square feet. They also hired former Menino advisor Nicholas Mitropoulos as a consultant, and donated more than $2 million to local charities including the Greater Boston Food Bank and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries.

Steven Restivo, Walmart's senior director of community affairs, claims those gifts are in line with the company's national giving trends, and not reflective of specific plans here. The decision to measure opportunities in Boston, he says, was spurred by demand — the same force that brought the chain to other cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

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