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Time to Talk About WalMart

If it were a Publix, would you be as upset?

I know, I touched on the whole WalMart building a store downtown issue last week, but Athens, we need to have a talk.

I'm no fan of WalMart, let's be clear. Their politics stink, they routinely give their workers the shaft, and when they move out of a location, they leave behind an essentially unusable shell of a building and a few acres of asphalt.

And, as a pal of mine once said, WalMart is apparently a place people go to spank their kids in public.

I get all of that. But people are flying off the handle at the possibility of WalMart taking over the old Armstrong and Dobbs site downtown, and guys, I just can't get mad about it.

, I'm worried about the traffic, but I'm pretty sure that's not enough of a reason to axe the concept right off the bat.

I get that WalMart is a potentially pretty bizarre addition to downtown Athens. I also get that we're looking down the barrel of a 39% poverty rate, and that things aren't likely to get better anytime soon.

That means you've got to consider two things. First, not everybody living within spitting distance of downtown is living the bohemian lifestyle, where the most important quality of life issue is easy access to West Washington Street. There are a lot of people living in poverty a stone's throw away from College Square. It would be awfully nice if they didn't have to drive or take the bus to the suburbs to buy groceries and medicine.

And let's talk about the other thing, too - jobs. We need 'em. Is "WalMart" synonymous with "low-wage jobs?" You betcha. Are low-wage jobs better than no-wage, no jobs at all? Absolutely. 

Here's the thing. For all of our hand-wringing on economic development, for lo, these many years, not a whole heck of a lot has happened. We've had chances to bring in new business, and those chances have evaporated eventually.

It's not the Commission's fault, it's not the current Mayor's fault, nor is it the fault of her predecessors. It's not the EDF's fault, or the Chamber of Commerce's. It's all of our faults. We all get some of the blame.

As a community, we can't come to a consensus on what kind of economic development we want. And we can't reconcile a lot of what we want with what is actually possible and practical. Would we love to see an Athens where everyone works at a film production studio, or a recording studio, or a digital media group? Of course. But that's not going to happen.

So let's start modestly. Let's not run WalMart out of downtown on a rail, especially when it's still just a rumor. Who knows? Maybe they can help us find a handhold out of this economic abyss.

Kimberly September 29, 2011 at 07:10 PM
Although I personally do not like WalMart and try to avoid shopping there if at all possible, I agree whole heartedly with your sentiments. As a realtor, I had buyers who would not even consider purchasing property in Athens-Clarke county to locate a business because of the perception that the government and its residents seem to automatically oppose development of almost any kind. At least Wal-Mart will provide some badly needed jobs and the opportunity for the live/walk/shop type of environment that Athens-Clarke seems to want to encourage for development in our community. Hopefully, we can try to weigh the considerations and come to conclusions that create opportunities and benefit a majority of the citizens of our county.
Camille Templeton September 30, 2011 at 01:13 AM
We have needed a grocery store downtown for a long time. The Kroger on Alps is too crowded, and not everyone who shops around the area is interested in the co-op or earth fare. When I was a student at UGA, I use to walk home from school, crossing the river and walking up 1st St.- a walk from "Disney World" to the ghetto. I would pass by folks bathing in the river, after having just been in a place that uses a Wal-Mart worker's salary worth of bricks to pave a crosswalk. As horrible a monster as Wal-Mart is, an urban location of this mega-store would certainly follow suit with the theory that urban areas are created out of the natural efficiency of proximity. But the awful truth is, that A&D property is WAY TOO CLOSE to the watershed for a Wally World.
Alexa Clay September 30, 2011 at 01:45 AM
I have to disagree with the "low-wage jobs are better than no-wage jobs" mentality for many reasons. A minimum wage job does very little for a family EXCEPT keep them in poverty. Even 2 minimum wage jobs will probably keep them in poverty. People (mostly poor women with children) will drive or bus in- because they can't afford to live close enough to downtown Athens- their kids will be in daycare from sun up til sun down, and they will STILL be on food stamps, but maybe they'll be able to pay their rent. Maybe. Until someone gets sick or the car breaks down... Then- try as we might- we will wake up one day to see no more Daily Groceries, no more Normaltown Hardware, no more lots of things that make Athens what it is...except there will be a big, ugly Walmart (and aesthetics count too when you're talking about community, property value, and quality of life.) I will admit that occasionally, Walmart is a solution- like when I have one hour to buy underwear, school supplies, & some lightbulbs? Walmart is NO solution for jobs or positive community development. Let's get more creative. With much love, Alexa Clay Watch: http://www.walmartmovie.com/ Read: "Nickel and Dimed" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel_and_Dimed
Martin Matheny September 30, 2011 at 02:11 AM
It's a fair point, and like I said, I'm no fan of WalMart. But I've got to disagree with your disagreement. (And then you can disagree with my disagreement to your disagreement - isn't civil discourse fun?) If "a minimum wage job does very little for a family EXCEPT keep them in poverty," then what does no job at all do? Don't get me wrong - I'm not about to start a rant about how food stamps and other social programs are bad - they're not. Clearly we need them. But, in this economy, isn't any money coming into a household a good thing? I'm not sure I buy the whole "WalMart means the end of local business in Athens" argument. After all, we've got two of 'em already, and Daily is still around. So is Normaltown Hardware, and tons of other examples. We're kind of a unique place, and those businesses will stay open as long as there's a community that believes in their value. I don't see that aspect of Athens changing anytime soon. A WalMart is not a perfect solution by any means, but with a 39% poverty rate and more than one in ten folks in Athens unemployed, at what point do we start to treat this as a crisis and maybe be just a little less choosy about who we let into our clubhouse?
Alexa Clay September 30, 2011 at 10:41 AM
I think an in-town Walmart would be a short-term band-aid to a big problem. Of course, a little money is better than no money, but the reality is that having a minimum wage job for many people means that they and/or their children become disqualified for health care, pay more in taxes, pay more in childcare. I agree that creating more jobs should be a high priority for Athens, but why couldn't community development grants help existing businesses do better or help feed micro businesses scattered within the Athens perimeter? It could include neighborhood groceries, which address the issue of local food security & are more practical for the portion of those 39% who do not have reliable transportation. Smaller grocery stores address the issue of the "food deserts" that exist in Athens- keeping many families from having access to fresh food at all. It is one thing for folks with cars to complain about having to drive from the Boulevard neighborhood to Kroger to get groceries, but it is another issue when you have no car and can carry only 1 bag of groceries home with your baby in your other arm. Are you going to bring home a bag of apples, a chicken and some fresh veggies for a salad to feed your family for one night, or are you going to stock up on boxes of Noodle-Roni and cereal for the week? Does the same community in Athens that values small businesses (like our beloved Daily and Normaltown Hardware) also value the well-being and health of ALL the people in our community?
Alexa Clay September 30, 2011 at 10:53 AM
Furthermore, to address your question at the beginning of your article: "If it were a Publix, would you be as upset?" The answer is, "No." People don't have the same knee-jerk, gag reflex reaction to places like we have to Walmart. Is that unfounded? Possibly. Personally, I am THANKFUL it is Walmart that is being considered. Maybe it will wake people up to these issues and stir some important dialogue and help Athens work even harder to come up with solutions. Although I am not personally involved, it seems that organizations like One Athens (http://www.prosperousathens.org) have made some excellent contributions so far. Thank you for the respectful and thought-provoking discussion.
Doc September 30, 2011 at 10:56 AM
Martin - very well done. Balanced. Fair. Me replying may start a storm of screams to the opposite!
Rebecca McCarthy (Editor) September 30, 2011 at 11:56 AM
Welcome to Athens Patch! Blake reports today (http://onlineathens.com/stories/093011/new_892646234.shtml) that Walmart ain't a-comin', Doc, so get out there and rustle up a Publix-ette or a Kroger-ette like they have in Atlanta!

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