As city elections draw near, the five at-large incumbents originally faced no competition for the slots open for the next term. That is, until Mike Mandel heard about Walmart coming to town.
Mandel, a 12-year Watertown resident and public artist, has mounted a write-in campaign for councilor-at-large for Watertown’s Nov. 8 election, standing on an anti-Walmart platform.
The superstore company boasting low merchandise prices is planning to submit a proposal to Watertown that would turn the 7.8-acre property that used to house GE Ionics into a Walmart store, complete with a full-service grocery section. GE moved the Ionics component to the Midwest about five years ago, rendering the space empty, according to Steve Magoon, director of community development and planning.
However, at a Sustainable Watertown meeting last week, hundreds of residents bashed the store potentially setting up shop locally, citing increased traffic, noise and sound pollution, property devaluation and threats to small business owners as main issues.
The site, which sits at the intersection of Irving and Arsenal Streets, is lpocated close to Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown High School, and Watertown Square, a mainly residential area far away from the built-up retail hub of Arsenal Mall and Watertown Mall, Mandel said.
“It’s just a huge development which is out of scale,” Mandel said. “Watertown is a total of 4.2 square miles, and we are not the community that needs this mammoth development close to so many important community aspects of our neighborhood.”
Mandel said if he gets elected, he would voice the opinion of anti-Walmart residents at all appropriate board meetings.
“My candidacy is a statement to Walmart to rethink their plan,” he said, noting that winning the election as a write-in candidate so close to the voting date would pose a win for citizens opposed to the store. “Walmart will have to look at that, because they don’t have to come to a town that doesn’t want them.”
But Walmart spokesperson Steven Restivo said he thinks residents would appreciate access to affordable groceries, and that the Watertown branch would create between 150 and 200 jobs.
“The majority of our jobs across the country are full-time, and our regular fulltime hourly wage in the state of Massachusetts is $13.20 per hour, and that does not include members of management,” he said. “We feel really good about the competitive nature of our jobs, and we think they are among the best in all of retail.”
While residents criticize the store for possibly adding traffic to an already busy Watertown Square, Restivo said store officials would look into the issue.
“It’s obviously in our best interest to make sure customers can get to and from the store as easily as they can,” he said.
Although protestors worry Walmart would squash local businesses, Restivo said the erection of the superstore would actually attract more retailers.
“Our stores are magnets for growth and development, and what we find is businesses that can diversify themselves and take advantage of customer activity that comes with Walmart want to be as close to our stores as they can be,” he said. “Anecdotally, if you drive around our stores in Massachusettes, you will ses small, medium and large businesses all coexisting.”
Restivo dismissed concerns of angry local residents protesting the arrival of Walmart in Watertown.
“The louder voices in these debates don’t necessarily represent the majority opinion, and that fact is made clear every time we open a new store as thousands of residents, none of whom attended council meetings or wrote letters to the editor, show support by just shopping the store,” he said. “It’s important to characterize the opposition directly, and the truth is, the number of customers will dwarf any number of folks criticizing the store today, in terms of numbers.”
Restivo said that before Walmart submits their proposal sometime next year, store officials will meet with worried citizens to receive feedback and calm any fears.
“We want to better understand the unique challenges that Watertown is facing, and together develop solutions,” Restivo said. “So our intent is to listen, answer lots of questions, and share information about the company, because what we’re finding is when people learn the facts, the more they see value in bringing the store to their neighborhood.”
According to the Walmart website, a branch in Watertown would also boost the local economy by employing area landscapers, snow plows, and repair companies to maintain the property, as well as generate roughly $500,000 in property taxes.
The corporation also hopes to open several new locations in the greater Boston area, including Somerville, Saugus, Avon, and Salem. The Walmart website indicates that the Salem, Saugus and Avon sites are already approved by respective local boards and committees.
Magoon said he could not comment on the positives or negatives of the store’s development, as Walmart has not yet submitted a formal application to the planning office.
“It’s really dependent on them coming to us with an application, and they certainly have not indicated to me or this office that they have a particular time frame in mind,” he said. “We have to wait and see what they actually do.”
Magoon said that Walmart could face possible hurdles if the application does not line up with recommendations from a study the economic development board released in August.
The study recommends building off the currently vacant facilities by bringing in more mid- to large-sized technology firms to give a unified, innovative feel to the area, which also houses Doble Engineering and Seven Cycles nearby.
However, with expansive properties available, the introduction of big-box retail could change the atmosphere of the neighborhood, according to the study.
“This type of development would tip the character of the corridor away from its potential as a cohesive innovation district - as represented by the start-up companies at the Arsenal on the Charles - to a regional shopping and automotive destination,” the study states.
Councilor-at-large John Donahue, whom Mandel said in campaign literature is a proponent of the Walmart development, said he also wants to see the corporation’s official proposal before deciding on a stance.
“We have a responsibility to all residents of Watertown to look at every proposal in the correct process,” Donahue said. “We don’t want to discourage any project. We want to look at everything objectively, and separate the politics of Walmart out of the equation.”
Donahue said he understands some residents’ distaste for the company, but he wants to make sure every proposal submitted receives due respect and attention.
“Things have to go through the correct channel, but step one of the presentation to the town has not even been formally brought forward,” he said.
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