By Joanne Haas
MADISON — The importance of an involved local citizenry and a local comprehensive plan to map a community’s growth is one of the key ways a community can avoid being harmed — both economically and environmentally — by the so-called “big box” stores like Wal-Mart.
That was one of the themes at Monday’s daylong conference in downtown Madison entitled “Good Jobs, Good Growth.” Sponsored by a number of labor and environmental groups, the conference focused on how big box sprawl can cause higher taxes, unemployment, flooding, traffic and more problems. While Wal-Mart is not the only big box chain, it is the largest and was the featured topic at the Madison Area Technical College. The conference will be repeated today at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Greg LeRoy, of Washington-based Good Jobs First, presented highlights of his organization’s research documenting how Wal-Mart has evolved into the world’s largest retailer in recent decades, receiving more than $1 billion in economic development subsidies from governments nationwide. He claims this growth has destroyed local businesses and jobs, partly because of questionable labor and competition tactics.
LeRoy recommends state legislatures consider rewriting incentive codes to prohibit subsidies to retailers except in areas of extreme economic distress.
“When you talk about ripple effects of an economic deal, you look upstream and you look downstream,” LeRoy said. “… And the downstream ripple effects are really lousy because that’s the ripple effects you get from the buying power of the associates (Wal-Mart employees) … poverty-wage, part-time, very little health care. So these people are not eating out much, they’re not buying homes, they’re not buying new cars, they’re not buying new lawnmowers to stimulate the economy.”
Kevin Pomeroy, the planning director for 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, said Wal-Mart is systematically attempting to “capture every dollar in the community.” Pomeroy says there is literally a Main Street in Wal-Mart Supercenter stores, which are approaching 200,000 square feet in size and feature everything from floral shops to groceries to hardware and auto supplies.
He cited research done by an Iowa economist who found since Wal-Mart arrived in that state, more than 550 grocery stores have closed in about 10 years. Retailers in other markets now served by Wal-Marts also have taken heavy hits in that state.