Fri., February 4, 2011 2:58am (EST)

New York City Officials To Walmart: Keep Out
By Robert Smith
Updated: 3 years ago

They say New York City has everything, but it doesn't have a Walmart.

Unions and politicians in the Big Apple have kept the mega-retailer out, but Walmart wants in and even a hostile City Council probably can't stop them.

You know how Walmart has those greeters at the door? At a New York City Council meeting Thursday, about 100 people stood outside to offer this salutation to Walmart: "Don't come in! Not in our community."

"One thing about real New Yorkers is that we don't shut up," says Valerie Jean, one of those anti-Walmart greeters.

The City Council hearing on the impact of a Walmart store in the Big Apple lasted four long hours. When it came to hating Walmart, the council stacked it deep and sold it cheap.

Council Member Charles Barron, who represents the east New York neighborhood that Walmart has been eyeing, set the tone.

"Don't even think about coming into east New York," he said. "We're desperate for jobs, but we're not going to take anything. We want jobs with dignity, with integrity, with self-respect."

Although Barron might vote against a Walmart, there is a small problem: There isn't anything to vote on. Walmart has not formally picked a site in New York City. There is no request for a zoning change. And, in fact, it's unclear who Barron was speaking to since Walmart refused to show up for the hearing.

That made Council President Christine Quinn all the more mad.

"Walmart's absence and refusal to attend sadly only leads me to be further skeptical about them as a company," she said.

And so the flogging began.

With testimony from professors about how Walmart 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 Walmart executives want to show up for their own funeral?

"Well, I didn't say we weren't going to be listening," said Steven Restivo, Walmart's director of community affairs.

He was going to watch a webcast of the hearing from the safety of his computer in New Jersey.

Restivo says the whole event was hypothetical. There's no project yet. And the hearing ignored the fact there are dozens of other big-box stores in New York: Target, Costco, Home Depot.

Restivo says customers should make this decision.

"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 an important lesson about New York City," he said. "We just don't think that's going to happen."

Well, Walmart's making sure it isn't going to happen: Instead of going to the hearing, Walmart bought radio ads talking up the benefits of a megastore. They even flew New York neighborhood leaders down to Bentonville, Ark., where the company has its headquarters.

Charles Fisher, who took the trip, testified at the hearing that he was now 100 percent for Walmart. Fisher says executives there promised plenty of jobs and money for college.

"If Walmart comes into my community and they'll be running out of new york city.>> [Duration: 00:10]

In the end, Walmart may be able to sidestep politics altogether. One possible site for them in Brooklyn has already been zoned for big-box stores. In theory, Walmart wouldn't need anything but the property developer's permission.

But the New York City Council clearly sent the message they won't be making it easy. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.