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Browsing both sides of the shopping aisle in Walmart debate

Posted by Marcia Dick  July 29, 2011 10:18 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger

A map of the half-mile radii around significant grocery stores shows a noticeable lack in Winter Hill and Ball and Magoun squares. Major supermarkets in blue: Foodmaster in West Somerville and Inman, Star Market on Beacon St., Market Basket on Somerville Ave., and Super Stop & Shop in East Somerville. White circles show major supermarkets that serve parts of Somerville but are not in Somerville: Whole Foods in Medford and Shaw's in Porter Square, Cambridge. Yellow circles show two small grocers: Farmers Bounty in Davis Square and Tony's Foodland in East Somerville. The proposed Walmart grocery store is in red. The former Star Market location is in green.

In Somerville, it's not just Mayor Joe Curtatone who has an opinion about Walmart's interest in opening its first grocery store in New England. Everyone is talking.

Let's outline the key points of debate:

- But they don't allow unions
- But affordable organic food is a good thing
- But it's so close to the Stop & Shop
- Why didn't Walmart look into the vacant Star Market space in Winter Hill?
- It will help the local economy
- It will destroy the local economy

(Disclosure: This reporter's boyfriend works in a food market.)

Upon hearing the news, Joe Grafton, executive director of Somerville Local First, immediately tweeted to followers: "we will be engaged to prevent it from happening, stay tuned."

Somerville Climate Action is drafting a letter to the mayor in opposition. Coordinator Maureen Barillaro said members objected to the company's labor practices and feared it would hurt existing businesses. Instead, she advocated for more local food businesses such as Dave's Fresh Pasta and Reliable Market.

Rebekah Gewirtz, president of the Somerville Board of Aldermen, was frustrated by the emphasis on big-box stores in Assembly Square. "It could be broken apart. A different zoning decision could be made there to make it a more attractive place," she said — a denser place with small shops à la Davis Square. That's "what builds a community."

Then there's the other side.

"I think Somerville should welcome the proposal," said Stephen Mackey, president/CEO of the Somerville Chamber of Commerce. "In the best of all worlds" a mom-and-pop would've expanded into that vacant Circuit City building, he said, but "we have to deal in the real world and in the real world it's our perspective that competition is good."

Questions about the company's labor practices could and should be asked in the permit-granting process, he said.  

Outside Somerville, first lady Michelle Obama has partnered with the corporation in her drive to bring healthy food to underserved areas.

Walmart has not yet signed a lease on the 34,000 square feet at 65 Mystic Ave., said spokesman Steven Restivo. Representatives met with Curtatone this week.

When asked whether Walmart had expected this level of pushback, Restivo said, "We look forward to engaging with the community to listen to questions."

To bring some ballast to all the opinionating, let's check with supermarket experts Kami Pothukuchi, a Wayne State University researcher who runs an on-campus agriculture project, and Mari Gallagher, head of what she called a "neutral third party" research and consulting firm.

Does the city need another supermarket in that location?

After all, Super Stop & Shop is just across the street. Market Basket — considered the cheapest place in town — is about 2 miles away by road. There's also Tony's Foodland in East Somerville, a smaller grocer targeting Latino and Brazilian shoppers.

However, stores may not be as easy to reach as the map promises. A, say, seven-minute walk "is doable for single people who are looking to get small things," Pothukuchi said. But in bad weather, customers — especially parents shopping with small children — may find that walk problematic.

In the case of Super Stop & Shop, that "street" it's across comprises Route 38 and an interstate access road, perilous unless you're in a car or a particularly fearless sprinter.

Many more customers will soon be right there on the north side of the highway: Developer Federal Realty is about to build 2,100 units of housing at Assembly Square. That's a lot of people needing milk and eggs.

(When asked whether Federal Realty supported the Walmart proposal, representative Jessie Lyons said in an e-mail that "as a general rule, Federal Realty does not comment on other organizations' business strategies or negotiations.")

Gallagher dismissed fears that a Walmart grocery store would hurt business for Stop & Shop or other supermarkets.

Neighboring stores of the same type actually tend to do better. "Competition is good for the consumer and good for the market," she said. "In revitalizing areas, if you have two grocery stores it's a good sign things are turning around."

People may not like Walmart supermarkets, Gallagher said, but "clearly they are a purveyor of healthy food."

Pothukuchi gave points for the building reuse. Anyone moving into an empty space "is a good thing," she said. Still, "smaller stores that are woven into the neighborhood fabric" tend to become stronger destinations. "If it's not really conducive for pedestrian and bike traffic, it doesn't really matter what people want to see" happen.

Woven into the neighborhood fabric … perhaps something like the vacant Star Market building in Winter Hill. Neighbors have been begging for a supermarket in that space.

It would've had an important plus for Walmart as well: The company wouldn't need a change-of-use permit and could bypass the city Planning Board, as C. W. Price is doing with the former A. J. Wright store. Last year, the board denied a change-of-use permit to an Ocean State Job Lot that wanted to take over the Star space.

"If they wanted that site they would've chosen it," Gallagher said. "I know it's frustrating for community members when they have a site they want to redevelop."

Restivo declined to say which other locations the company had considered.

Now, the labor issues.

Walmart currently employs nearly 12,000 people in Massachusetts, the majority in full-time positions, Restivo said. The average non-management pay in Massachusetts is $13.18 per hour. That annualizes to just over $27,400.

There could be pro-Walmart sentiment from job-seeking locals, Gallagher said. When the Chicago store opened, about 17,000 people applied for just a couple hundred positions.

What can Curtatone hope to accomplish in discussions with the company? His comments after the first meeting were vague.

To Pothukuchi's knowledge, Walmart doesn't have much of a record of giving in to community requests. They might discuss hiring local workers — a firestorm issue in the big Maxwell's Green housing development project underway in central Somerville — "but given their practices and wages I don't know how much that would benefit" residents, she said.

Walmart has no local hiring quotas, Restivo said. However, in the company's first Chicago store "almost three-fourths of the associates we hired came from the neighborhood."

"In Chicago there were some concessions," Gallagher said, including an extra 40 to 60 cents per hour to all employees, according to the Chicago Federation of Labor. Walmart's willingness to negotiate will depend in part on how much they want the site, she said.

Walmart plans to open 90 to 100 grocery stores in this fiscal year, Restivo said. We'll see if one of them is in Somerville.

Danielle Dreilinger writes the Somerville Scene column. E-mail her at somervillescene@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter.

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