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Wal-Mart’s charitable giving soars in Boston

Seeking to win over a reluctant City Hall

By Meghan E. Irons and Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 20, 2011

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has sharply increased charitable giving in Boston amid a campaign to improve its image and build public support, as the nation’s largest retailer looks to open in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

Since the first of the year, Wal-Mart has donated more than $2.1 million to Boston nonprofits, four times the amount it gave in the past four years.

The Arkansas-based retailer has said that it wants to open at least one smaller version of its mammoth big-box stores in Boston and that it is targeting “badly served’’ neighborhoods that lack jobs and healthy food.

But facing stiff opposition from Mayor Thomas M. Menino and business owners in neighborhoods including Roxbury’s Dudley Square, it is taking steps that appear designed to win public support. It has lobbied City Council members and hired Nicholas T. Mitropoulos, a friend and onetime political adviser to Menino.

“We want to enter these markets the right way,’’ said Steven V. Restivo, spokesman for Wal-Mart. “And that means listening to our stakeholders, answering questions, and sharing information about our company.’’

The effort in Boston echoes recent moves in cities such as Chicago and New York where it has accompanied hopes for stores with floods of charitable donations and advertising campaigns, and where it has hired politically connected consultants.

Wal-Mart’s fiercest opponent in Boston may be Menino, who last week fumed about the company’s hiring of Mitropoulos and accused it of “throwing money around to nonprofits’’ to buy public opinion.

“What happens with Wal-Mart, and we have done some research, is they have worked out all rural areas in this country, and now they are trying to go to urban areas because they have no place to go,’’ Menino said. “They don’t belong in Boston.’’

Menino and Councilor Tito Jackson of Roxbury met last month with small-business owners from Dudley Square who expressed fears that a Walmart in Roxbury would deal them a crushing blow.

“We want to make sure that as we progress that the right type of development occurs in Dudley Square,’’ said Jackson. “The issue on the table is that if you take one step forward, you don’t also want to take two steps back.’’

Wal-Mart officials say the company’s 18-month-old drive into urban markets has included experiments with several types of stores that are smaller than the more familiar big-box giants - including its Neighborhood Market, which is about a third the size the larger stores, and Walmart Express, which is about a tenth the size.

The company is planning a store in Somerville and is also targeting Watertown and Saugus, where it is building a two-story, 114,000-square-foot store. The company also will give Saugus up to $1 million for improvements to water and sewer utilities, said town manager Andrew Bisignani.

Restivo rebutted assertions that Wal-Mart’s charitable surge is intended to curry public favor. Rather, he said, the retailer’s stepped-up charitable efforts reinforces its commitment to nonprofit groups that address critical needs such as hunger, job training, and education. Wal-Mart’s overall charitable giving has increased 64 percent this year over last fiscal year to $732 million, he added.

“Boston is no different,’’ Restivo said, “and we’re proud of our record of giving here as well as the positive affect those donations have had on countless residents across the city.’’

The company’s recent gifts include $500,000 to Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries for an employment program for single mothers; $50,000 for job training and youth development at the Urban League of East Massachusetts; and two trucks to the Greater Boston Food Bank worth a total of $179,744. All three organizations are based in Roxbury.

In July, the foundation awarded City Year, a national program based in Boston, a $3.2 million grant to provide job training and help students in high-poverty areas graduate. The year before it gave a $1.2 million grant, City Year said.

Wal-Mart also registered a website, Walmartboston.com, in March 2010, according to whois.net, a company that tracks website domains. The website remains inactive. A Wal-Mart website aimed at New York City, where the company is also looking to open stores, promotes the company, answers criticisms, and highlights charitable giving.

In addition to hiring Mitropoulos, who helped run Menino’s transition when he became mayor, it dispatched Margaret McKenna, who heads the Walmart Foundation and knows the mayor well from her days as president of Lesley University, to meet with Menino.

The company has been actively lobbying councilors, and a representative from the company attended as councilors discussed the issue at a meeting last month. Wal-Mart representatives have met privately with several councilors over the last several months.

For the council, it is a difficult issue in a midterm election year when a low turnout will allow labor to play a significant role. Local labor leaders have criticized Wal-Mart’s employment practices and battles against attempts to organize its workers. But with a faltering global economy, councilors also do not want to chase potential jobs out of Boston.

In Roxbury, the prospect of a Walmart is causing debate among neighbors, where some residents and merchants desperate for jobs and business are divided. Some oppose the retailer because of its past practices.

“It’s a matter of principle,’’ said Blanca Sierra de Price, who owns Blanka Flowers and Gifts in Dudley Square. “Wal-Mart has a really bad reputation with the way they treat women and the way they treat minorities.’’

But Darnell Williams, who heads the local Urban League, countered that Wal-Mart would be a boon to Roxbury, which is dealing with high unemployment and little access to affordable goods.

“You can’t fault a business for pursuing an agenda that is in the best interest of their customers and their bottom line,’’ said Williams. “And if they are accomplishing that then what are we really saying? Isn’t that the American way?’’

Such divergent views about Wal-Mart caused tempers to flare in City Hall, when Councilor Felix G. Arroyo pushed for a hearing to force Wal-Mart to explain its Boston plan and face some of the company’s critics.

Meghan Irons can be reached at mirons@globe.com. Follow me on Twitter@Meghan Irons. Andrew Ryan can be reached at aryan@globe.com