WALMART PULLOUT

Walmart decided against building stores in Southeast D.C., causing a major ripple in several development deals in areas in desperate need of revitalization.

Former D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray was livid while discussing the recent economic pullout of Walmart from several signed leases to build new stores east of the river. He described it as Walmart’s “midnight raid” that yanked the deals from the table.

“Walmart reneged on a deal and there is nothing they can do to justify the way in which they did this,” Gray told News Channel 8.  “We should have stayed on top of Walmart because it always had a bit of an uneasy feel.  They wanted to come, but they didn’t want to put stores where they were most needed.”

Gray’s uneasy feeling came after constant wrangling with Walmart executives while serving as mayor to court the chain into the city – without compromising the integrity of the city’s workforce.  In one battle Walmart refused to sign off on offering employees a “living wage” – no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits.  But even after concessions were made by Gray, including his veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, that would have forced retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more operating in the District to pay the living wage, Walmart came in, and then refused to follow through with a wage that exceeded the city’s current $8.25 an hour wage.

“It has been under discussion for several years – not a few weeks and Walmart knows how important it was to have their presence at Skyland,” Gray said. “Walmart is a company that generates billions of dollars in revenue each year, so even if it went to litigation and we win – what do we have to show for it at the end of the day?  We still don’t have the stores, jobs, or the 400 to 500 housing units that were supposed to go with it.”

Mayor Muriel Bowser echoed Gray’s frustration. She said she was “blood mad” about the pullout, during a news conference Jan. 15.

Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D) followed the same sentiment. “I am angry and I take this personally as I advocated to bring them to Ward 7. The District had a deal with Walmart to bring in five stores with two coming to Ward 7. They signed leases and now they have broken their deal,” she said.  “This has racial and social-economic discrimination implications. This is a major setback but I am confident that the District will do everything possible to move forward with the projects.”

A Wal-Mart spokesman told reporters, “As part of a broad, strategic review of our existing portfolio and pipeline, we’ve concluded opening two additional stores in Washington, D.C. is not viable at this time. Our experience over the last three years operating our current stores in D.C. has given us a fuller view on building and operating stores in the District. This decision will not affect our three existing stores and we look forward to continue serving these customers in the future.”

For residents like Lonnie Rice, who lives on Wheeler Road in Southeast, the bail out by Walmart is another example of high-stakes gambling with the livelihood of the residents gone wrong.  Rice said he was never convinced that the Skyland development would go through without additional hiccups, especially after Gray left office.

“Now we have an eye-sore vacant lot, no affordable housing, and an opportunity for other stores that were supposed to follow Walmart into Ward 8 probably ready to pull out as well,” Rice said.

ssherman@afro.com