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So, it finally happened: Yesterday, Walmart and the mayor’s office announced the community benefits agreement—-except termed a “community partnership initiative”—-that Vince Gray had long promised as a way of creating the impression that he was actually trying to get the retailer to commit to anything upon its entry into the city. The cynics among us never expected it to amount to much, really. And they were right: Every bullet point in the five-page document is either something Walmart is required to do by law, something it had already committed to do in earlier discussions, or something that commits it to absolutely nothing.
Creating and funding a retail job training program? Done. Transportation demand management measures like Bikeshare stations? Already negotiated as part of the large tract review process. Job fairs, inclusion of small businesses within the store, and the promise to not sell guns? Announced on day one. It’s great Walmart says it will do those things, but the Mayor got not one iota more from the company out of his super-secret negotiations over the last year.
The best part, at the end: “Any intentions or commitments contained in this document are subject and contingent on business conditions that will continue to ensure a productive relationship between the city and its residents.”
Which is an escape hatch for every other other piece of it.
Now, you might argue that there’s no reason Walmart should necessarily sign a community benefits agreement at all. Other big grocery stores haven’t, and the company is already bringing retail to neighborhoods where people already leave the city to shop, not to mention showering the city with charitable gifts. That’s fine.
The weird part, though, is how the entire “initiative” reads more like a press release for Walmart than any sort of agreement, listing off all the great benefits Walmart associates already get—-even the percentage of managers they say started on the bottom rung. And in his press release, the mayor said the agreement followed “intensive engagement” with community members and District officials, which may be true in the sense that they had a lot of meetings, but certainly isn’t true in the sense that anybody knew anything about what was in the document being “negotiated.” It’s the kind of language you see in all of Walmart’s dealings with the press and the public: Blithe disregard for the existence of any misgivings with how the company has historically done business.
Gray may have known that he wasn’t going to get anything more than Walmart was already bringing to the table, and decided to declare victory and go home, given that he really wants the retailer in the District. But buying into the Walmart schtick wasn’t necessary at all.