A Wal-Mart conundrum
“Whatever you do, please put one in Boston,’’ Lorraine Carrington said on Tuesday afternoon. “Wal-Mart is a beautiful thing. Can you put in a good word?’’
Carrington was standing with her daughter and grandson outside the Tropical Foods supermarket in Dudley Square, a Roxbury institution for 35 years. Of the 10 Tropical customers I spoke to that afternoon, nine said they would like - make that love - to see a Wal-Mart in Dudley.
“My money is small,’’ said a $10.50-an-hour food service worker, who didn’t want her name used in case her employer reads this. “I say 100 percent yes. Maybe I can get a part-time job there.’’
Some parts of this neighborhood - one of the city’s poorest - are in desperate need of resuscitation. Not Tropical Foods.
On Tuesday, customers wheeled carts down well-stocked aisles at the busy, yellow-walled store in search of Kix, bananas, cassava leaves, curry spices.
Co-owner Ronn Garry Jr. has heard the talk that Wal-Mart is eyeing this neighborhood. The company has been buttering up local community groups with donations. Still, Wal-Mart spokesman Steve Restivo says “we don’t have any announced projects,’’ in Roxbury.
Garry worries anyway.
“I don’t know if we could survive,’’ he said. A market study he commissioned found that a nearby Wal-Mart would chew up 30 percent of his business. And it’s a business that is connected to its community: Almost all of Tropical’s 73 workers live in Boston. Garry contributes to local causes and spends $2.5 million on goods from Boston-area suppliers each year.
Until now, he has been focused on expanding.
“Yeah, we’re funky and authentic, but we really need upgrades,’’ he said. The store is included in proposals for two vacant, city-owned parcels farther down Washington Street. They are part of what the city hopes will be a transformation in the area: At least seven parcels and buildings are slated to become new retail, housing, and office space.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s plan is to bring so many new consumers into the square that local businesses, which keep more of their profits in the local community, will boom.
It’s the opposite of the Wal-Mart approach. The Arkansas behemoth is no longer seen as the evil giant it was 10 years ago, having redeemed its image with high environmental and nutritional standards. But the key to its success remains the same: Dominating the market, squeezing suppliers, and driving down prices. Wal-Mart vehemently contests this, but there are plenty of studies showing that the chain drives down wages, too. All while sucking character out of communities.
Menino has invested too much political capital to let that happen here. He vows to protect Dudley merchants from Walmageddon.
I happen to think a Wal-Mart would be a disaster here in the long term. I also happen to have a job that means I can afford to shop elsewhere.
But in Dudley Square, there are many people who don’t have the luxury of considering the long term. Besides, they have seen many previous promises of a revival come to nothing. Wal-Mart, with its jobs and low prices, seems like a sure thing. Its apparent interest in Dudley is even viewed by some as a kind of affirmation.
“As a neighborhood, we’re stereotyped,’’ said Sondra Mayes, a 49-year-old Wal-Mart fan who gets by on disability and food stamps. “A lot of big businesses don’t want to come into our area.’’
Even Garry wrestles with this viewpoint.
“I’m a capitalist by nature,’’ he said. “People can open businesses wherever they want. But are [customers] willing to forgo a store that represents them, in favor of one that reflects anywhere in America - just to save a few cents?’’
He’s lucky he won’t find out anytime soon.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.