In the Shadow of Walmart

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  August 31, 2011

Those studies, however, all involved rural and suburban markets. What about cities? Walmart's first major push into an urban center was in Chicago, where a Supercenter opened in 2006, and which this year got a 10,000-square-foot "express" store — complete with food, pharmacies, and check-cashing services. Thanks to support from newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Walmart is also slated to cut the ribbon on its second Windy City Supercenter next year, and has promised to open several dozen stores, including three 42,000-square-foot "neighborhood markets," by 2016.

"The aim here . . . is to get the right model so that we can rapidly roll these things out," Bill Simon, Walmart president and CEO, told investors at a conference in March. "At our peak we built about 350 Supercenters in a year, so when we get this right, these things are going to come real fast."

Because the urban initiative is so new, few studies are available to predict the effect Walmart could have in a place like Boston. But in 2009, Loyola University researchers put a magnifying glass on the first Chicago store. Examining two years' worth of records, the study found that Walmart was "replacing, but not enhancing, employment opportunities in the community." For establishments close to Walmart, they found that the probability of going out of business was significantly higher than for stores further away. At the same time, the Supercenter produced no net new jobs — whereas it employed about 300 workers, the Loyola analysts claimed that it also deleted that many positions from the surrounding area.


NEW LIFE With long-awaited development projects finally gaining ground — including a $100-million overhaul of the landmark Ferdinand Building (above) — Dudley Square has become an attractive target to big-box retailers like Walmart.
In the Boston area, the print media is more or less pining for Walmart, with the Herald going so far as to attack black leaders who question the chain's intentions, and even the Globe this week suggesting that the company has changed its nefarious ways. All this while Walmart is circling its wagons, building a 34,000-square-foot food market in Somerville's Assembly Square, and also targeting Watertown and Saugus, the latter of which has a two-story outpost on the way.

Walmart's power brokers haven't just been sucking up to influence peddlers like Darnell Williams. For almost a year now, they've also been lobbying at Boston City Hall, feeling out select councilors behind closed doors. That's the preference of Boston City Council President Steve Murphy, who, at a July 13 City Council meeting, twice argued that conversations with Walmart should, for the time being, remain between officials and lobbyists, and out of public view.

Murphy's comment came in opposition to councilor-at-large Felix G. Arroyo, a former union organizer who called for a public hearing on a resolution "for fair and full retail employment opportunities at Walmart." The routine procedural request unwound into a showdown in the chamber, where councilors John Connolly, Matt O'Malley, and Maureen Feeney agreed with Murphy that the resolution should be passed, but without a public hearing — the same action favored by a Walmart lobbyist who was watching from the gallery.

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