RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
You can get anything you want in New York City, unless what you want is to shop at Wal-Mart. Unions and politicians in the Big Apple have kept the mega-retailer out. But Wal-Mart wants in. and as NPR's Robert Smith reports, even a hostile city council probably can't stop it.
ROBERT SMITH: You know how Wal-Mart has those greeters at the front entrance? Well, at a New York City council meeting yesterday, about a hundred people stood outside to offer this salutation to Wal-Mart.
Ms. VALERIE JEAN: Don't come in. Not in our communities.
SMITH: You would make a great anti-Wal-Mart greeter.
Ms. JEAN: Well, one thing about real New Yorkers is that we don't shut up.
SMITH: Valerie Jean is absolutely right about that one. The city council hearing on the impact of a New York City Wal-Mart store lasted four long hours. When it came to hating Wal-Mart, the council stacked it deep and sold it cheap. City councilmember Charles Barron represents the east New York neighborhood that Wal-Mart's been eyeing. He set the tone.
Mr. CHARLES BARRON (Member, City Council, New York City): Don't even think about coming into east New York. We're desperate for jobs, but we're not going to take anything. We want jobs with dignity, jobs with integrity, jobs with self-respect.
SMITH: You know, you kind of get the feeling that Barron might vote against a Wal-Mart store. Small problem though. There isn't anything to vote on. Wal-Mart has not formally picked a site in New York City. There's no request for a zoning change. And, in fact, it's unclear who Barron was speaking to since Wal-Mart refused to show up for the hearing, which made city council president Christine Quinn all the more mad.
Ms. CHRISTINE QUINN (President, City Council, New York City): Wal-Mart's absence and refusal to attend sadly only leads me to be further skeptical about them as a company.
SMITH: And so the flogging began. With testimony from professors about how Wal-Mart can drive smaller stores out of business. And impassioned pleas from small business owners worried about the competition. And unions concerned about the low wages. So why didn't Wal-Mart executives want to show up for their own funeral?
Mr. STEVEN RESTIVO (Director of Community Affairs, Wal-Mart): Well, I didn't say we weren't going to be listening.
SMITH: Steven Restivo is Wal-Mart's director of community affairs. He was going to watch a webcast of the hearing from the safety of his own computer in New Jersey. Restivo says the whole event was hypothetical. There's no project yet. And it ignored the fact that there are dozens of other big-box stores in New York - Target, Costco, Home Depot. Restivo says customers should make this decision.
Mr. RESTIVO: If we open a store, and no one comes or we open a hiring center and no one applies for a job, we'll have learned a really important lesson about New York City. We just don't think that's going to happen.
SMITH: Well, they're making sure it isn't going to happen. Instead of going to the hearing, Wal-Mart bought radio ads talking up the benefits of a mega-store. They even flew New York neighborhood leaders down to Bentonville, Arkansas. Charles Fisher took the trip, and he testified at the hearing that he was now 100 percent for Wal-Mart. Fisher says executives there promised plenty of jobs and even money for college.
Mr. CHARLES FISHER: If Wal-Mart comes into my community and they lied to me, they won't be here very long. Believe that. All right? They'll be running out of New York City.
SMITH: In the end, Wal-Mart may be able to sidestep politics altogether. One possible site for them in Brooklyn has already been zoned for big box stores. In theory, Wal-Mart wouldn't need anything but the property developer's permission. But the New York City Council clearly sent the message they're not going to make it easy.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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