So Walmart has announced that it will cancel three of its six planned D.C. stores if the living wage bill becomes law. I’ll have a column in the paper on Thursday with a more reasoned argument on the subject, but here are a few quick thoughts:
1. This might be a bluff. Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander is convinced it isn’t, but I wouldn’t rule it out. Walmart stands to lose money if the Large Retailer Accountability Act is enacted. So if the company can gin up opposition to the bill by demonstrating in advance that making it law will cost D.C. some valuable retail, it stands to gain—-even if it has no real intention of canceling plans for these three stores.
2. If Walmart follows through on its threat, it’s a loss for the District. It’s debatable whether Walmart’s arrival in D.C. is good news or bad news for the city—-but these three stores are the ones the District could use. Walmart critics argue that the big box retailer has a history of driving nearby local businesses under, and at some of the planned sites, like Georgia Avenue and H Street NW, there’s plenty of existing business within walking distance that could suffer. But these aren’t the stores Walmart’s threatening to cancel. The ones we’ll lose—-at Ward 7’s Skyland Town Center and Capitol Gateway, and to a lesser extent the one at the intersection of New York Avenue and Blandensburg Road NE in Ward 5—-are in areas that are lacking in retail, particularly grocery retail. They’re also relatively close to the Maryland border, so they’d help plug retail leakage and bring sales tax dollars into the District. It’s a shame that these stores are the ones on the chopping block.
3. Maybe Walmart didn’t really want these stores anyway. Mayor Vince Gray issued an ultimatum to the company in 2011: Build a store at Skyland, or forget about the other D.C. stores you’re planning. This is the company’s opportunity to get out of that obligation. With its three stores in the Northwest quadrant already under construction, Gray can’t really follow through on his ultimatum anymore, and Walmart gets to dangle its less desirable stores as a bargaining chip to fight the legislation it hates.
All of this ought to become clearer in the coming weeks after the D.C. Council takes a second vote on the bill tomorrow and Gray decides whether to sign it.