Walmart moves in… again

BIG BOX STORE DOESN’T QUITE CAPTURE the scale of the new Walmart Supercenter that opened in Greenport last week. By local standards, it’s more like a stadium store or a crater-center. What else do you call a building whose floor space covers nearly three acres?

One of the strongest arguments against new Walmarts involves how they and other large chain stores siphon off the customers of locally owned firms and hollow out village, town and city business districts. But that objection has little relevance to this case, because Walmart relocated less than a mile from its old store. The new Walmart has added a supermarket, but it will compete with the supermarkets owned by other chains, not local vendors.

Walmart has also come in for criticism because of its labor practices, like discriminating against female workers and not paying its employees for all the hours they work. Perhaps aware of that concern, the press release issued by the company to announce the opening of the new store emphasizes that the move has created 100 “new positions.”

Not surprisingly, the release leaves out the critical information about how many of those jobs are part time and how many of the people in those jobs will be eligible for company benefits like health care.

Instead, the release says that the statewide average wage earned by Walmart “hourly associates” was $11.78 as of February. Again, there’s no mention of what people in Greenport are earning. Those who do earn that average rate and work full time would make about $2,500 above the federal guideline for a family of four living in poverty.

To put this in context, keep in mind that the unemployment rate last month in Columbia County continued to hover well above the previous worst jobless rate of the last two decades. A few new businesses have opened recently, but the new Walmart created more jobs at its new store than any other local business has even promised to generate in the near-term. People need jobs now, and while it might be better to have small businesses taking up the slack, folks out of work can’t feed their families on what might be.

Then there’s the issue of the environmental impact of the new store. Walmart took a number of steps during construction that should reduce the amount of energy the new store uses and cut the waste it produces. As the world’s largest retailer, it’s taken the company a long time to address the pollution it generates. The new store’s high efficiency lighting and greater use of sunlight, and its systems that reduce water use and encourage recycling not only help at this store but also indicate some important corporate changes. When Walmart embraces measures like these, its bear hug drags the rest of the industry and plenty of consumers with it.

But there’s a downside to new stores like this one, according to the company’s critics. Even though all these new energy efficiency techniques do make the buildings more “green,” the structures are so much larger than the ones they replace that they end up creating a net increase in energy use, which boosts the overall amount of carbon dioxide the company is responsible for spewing into the atmosphere. Bigger stores sell more products wrapped in enormous amounts of wasteful packaging, and acres of parking lots funnel pollutants into the groundwater on which many people depend.

The difficult truth about Walmart isn’t that it poses an outsized threat to the environment, though it does, or that it has treated its low-wage workers badly, which it has, nor is it any of the other well- deserved knocks the company takes about the way it does business. The dilemma is that as a society we want Walmart. We like the low prices and the choice of brands and the jobs and tax revenue Walmart brings to the community. And people show their approval by shopping there. I do.

Town officials might have stopped Walmart from building its new store or at least made a principled stand against it. But they didn’t do that because it would have ignored the will of their constituents. That leaves those of us who have deep misgivings about the impact of super-sized box stores with a challenge: Find a better alternative that, like Walmart, offers people what they need at a price they’re willing to pay.

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