View Full Version : Wal-Mart Zeroes in on South Jersey Township

March 24th, 2005, 07:48 AM
March 20, 2005


Wal-Mart Zeros In on a South Jersey Township

By ROBERT STRAUSS (http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/filmography.html?p_id=68664;http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=ROBERT STRAUSS&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=ROBERT STRAUSS&inline=nyt-per)

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/dropcap/d.gifEPTFORD TOWNSHIP

IT would be hard to imagine a more promising middle-class shopping Mecca than this Gloucester County suburb. At least that is what Wal-Mart - at once the world's largest retailer and avowed enemy of the union worker - is thinking these days as it considers how to carve a supersized slice of this suburban pie.

If viewed like a middle school science class pondering a cross-section of the Earth, the Deptford Mall sits at the core, with 155 stores, 4 of them department store anchors. Surrounding the mall in an inner ring are the big-box stores - Best Buy, Sports Authority, Dick's Sporting Goods - along with the Deptford Six multiplex movie theater.

Just beyond that is the usual panorama of modern-day suburban America - an unhealthy smattering of fast-food restaurants and strip shopping plazas. Finally, in a thin outer crust are the more traditional and increasingly endangered mom-and-pop stores as well as a couple of ubiquitous diners - all which pre-date the retail extravaganza that began spreading like Japanese barberry in the 1970's, when the Philadelphia suburbs pushed beyond the first post-World War II settlements of Cherry Hill and Pennsauken.

In those days, Deptford Township was mostly a loose collection of small villages and truck farms, known primarily as the place where the first balloon flight in America landed in the 18th century and where pig farmers sold their slop to enhance the soil of the Garden State. Today it is home to a confluence of several major highways - Interstate 295, the North-South Freeway, and State Routes 41, 47 and 55 - all of which funnel into the overloaded shopping district at the center of this unpretentious town of 28,000.

Wal-Mart could hardly help noticing, and as a result, the giant chain has proposed not one but three stores for the area. And were Wal-Mart to have its way - which remains to be seen - none would be of the old average variety, or what the company calls discount stores, but supercenters, stores of no less than 100,000 square feet or perhaps twice that size. By comparison, the entire Deptford Mall is 1.2 million square feet.

Not surprisingly, the seeming incongruity of having three huge Wal-Marts in one small South Jersey town has galvanized opposition from the usual suspects - neighbors, organized labor, environmental groups and small businesses.

"Our argument is quality of life, traffic, safety and home values," said Mike Campbell, the head of the Concerned Citizens of Deptford, a local umbrella group boasting almost 125 members that is spearheading the protests here. "Deptford has 28,000 people and 18 square miles and already has probably 3 square miles of retail space as it is."

Intense opposition to Wal-Mart is nothing new, from New Jersey to Queens to Quebec. In a commentary on the schizophrenic sensibility of today's working class, labor unions have battled Wal-Mart because of the belief that its wage levels and benefits are lowering standards for workers and flooding the marketplace with cheaply made goods. Yet it is these types of working-class shoppers who have made the Arkansas-based behemoth what it is today.

Closer to home, potential Wal-Marts - or the expansion of smaller discount stores into supercenters - have aroused opposition from Pennsville, Rio Grande and Lawrenceville to Toms River and Edison.

Critics insist that Wal-Mart, by its size alone - the chain employs 1.4 million workers in the United States - drives out competition, small and large, eliminating more jobs than it creates.

In this swath of South Jersey, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents about 10,000 supermarket workers in the five counties surrounding Deptford, is leading the charge against Wal-Mart out of concern that the supercenters, which feature large food departments, will hurt traditional supermarkets.

Since 96 percent of New Jersey's more than 60,000 supermarket workers are unionized and earn, on average, about 50 percent more than the $8 an hour that Wal-Mart pays its clerks, the union insists the mass entry of Wal-Mart will hurt workers.

One Site Has Been Approved

So far, planners in Deptford have approved one of the sites - about a 50-acre plot at Cooper Street and Delsea Drive - but the other two are in legal limbo.

Last November, after giving the green light to the first store, the Deptford Planning Board quickly passed an ordinance limiting future big-box stores to 100,000 square feet, far less than Wal-Mart wants. The officials were careful to include the words "discount or club store" in the ordinance, targeting Wal-Mart and its subsidiary, Sam's Club. In response, the developers have filed a civil suit against the planning board, saying the ordinance is illegal.

"We are a retail center, that's historic now, so people aren't against retail in general," said Joseph Picardi, Deptford's township manager, who abstained from the vote. "I'm sure they would be happy with another department store of 100,000 square feet - a Boscov's or something like that. But it's Wal-Mart they just don't like."

There is no unionized Wal-Mart in the United States, and earlier this month Wal-Mart announced it was closing its only unionized store, in Jonquière, Quebec, claiming it was not making enough of a profit. The same union was the first to draw blood in the fight to keep Wal-Mart out of Deptford, and soon found allies who were worried about more than simply union jobs.

"There has been no clear-cut plan as to what they, the township officials plan to do on road improvements above and beyond store egress," Mr. Campbell said. "Delsea Drive, where a couple of the sites are, can't be widened without massive public domain. Cooper Street, where the one approved will go, that intersection is total gridlock already.

"But even my personal feelings about Wal-Mart aside," he continued, "why do we need more retail anyway? Is there something someone in Deptford can't already buy here? What's wrong with an office park or some good housing on that land?"

For its part, Wal-Mart says it is precisely because Deptford is a retail center that it wants to get a big piece of the market there.

"When we look at developing stores, we look at how they would co-exist," said Mia Masten, director of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart's eastern region. "What we are looking at is not only distance, but working at peak efficiency. What you don't want to have happen is have a store so successful that the parking lot is always full, that check-out lines are too long, that people don't have enough time to replenish shelves. If it is a bad shopping experience, people won't come back. That helps us gauge the need for additional stores, even those seemingly so close together in Deptford, to provide an optimal shopping experience."

Whether or not the shopping experience is optimal, those protesting the metastasization of Wal-Marts around the state are adamant about keeping them out of their towns and neighborhoods - at almost any cost. In Lawrence Township, for example, a group of residents has been meeting at least once a month to come up with ways to thwart a proposed Wal-Mart near the township's border with Ewing and Trenton. The group has had speakers talk about land use and planning concerns and has even put up a Web site, www.letsstopwalmart.org (http://www.letsstopwalmart.org/), to rally support.

"Wal-Mart has attracted negative attention from a variety of constituencies," said Dr. David Bensman, professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. "The women's movement has paid attention to the many discrimination lawsuits. I think another reason why anti-Wal-Mart calls get resonance is that small businesses are threatened when they come it. Lots of different communities join in. I have found both labor and religious groups are responsive. Labor groups know of their anti-union record. Religious groups are aware of labor rights and environmental standards Wal-Mart often ignores."

Moreover, when it comes to Wal-Mart, the mere size of the outlet is frequently one of the main sticking points. Al Norman of Greenfield, Mass., a small town in the western part of the state, runs something called Sprawl-Busters, a volunteer clearing house of sorts for those who fight the development of big-box stores.

'Most Reviled Retailer'

As Mr. Norman put it: "Going back to the late 1930's, there was the anti-chain store tax movement. There were probably around 30 states that passed legislation to have a special tax for chain stores if they had a certain number of units in the state. It was an effort aimed at A.&P. because they thought A.&P. would threaten small towns and drive farmers out of business because they were so big they might control prices.

"That being said," he continued, "I think Wal-Mart is the most reviled retailer in the history of America. There has never been a retailer on which there has been laid so much venom. There is no question that upon the biggest the worst is heaped."

In the face of such revulsion, Wal-Mart has no intention of doing anything but getting bigger. Indeed, its Web site (www.walmartstores.com (http://www.walmartstores.com/)) boasts "the continuation of its aggressive unit growth for the fiscal year beginning Feb. 1, 2005."

The giant retailer - whose sales last year totaled $256.3 billion - intends to open 45 new discount stores, 250 supercenters and 40 Sam's Clubs across the United States in the next year, or a total of about 55 million square feet of new retail space. To put that in perspective, that is about the size of 45 Deptford Malls. But the company declined to say how many new stores it hoped to open in New Jersey this year.

Historically, speaking, it took a while for Wal-Mart to cast its gaze toward New Jersey. The state's first Wal-Mart - in Turnersville, about five miles south of Deptford - was built in 1991. At that point, New Jersey was the 42nd state that Wal-Mart entered, and the last in the industrialized Northeast. Today, there are 37 Wal-Marts and 9 Sam's Clubs throughout the state.

"New Jersey has been a great market for us," said Ms. Masten of Wal-Mart.

As far as the protests, she dismissed them as short-term concerns on the part of the company. "We feel we provide consumers what they want: low prices for good products," she said. "We feel those who protest are in the minority."

Still, those protesters have caught the attention of New Jersey lawmakers. A bipartisan bill introduced in the State Senate by Thomas Kean Jr., a Republican from Union County, and Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester County, would put severe restrictions on any store with more than 130,000 square feet of retail space.

"People have just gotten fed up with the traffic concerns and are worried about quality of life issues with oversized stores," said Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat of Teaneck, who co-sponsored similar legislation in the General Assembly.

Moreover, Ms. Weinberg said she was well aware that the bills included language aimed directly at Wal-Mart, which would make it easier for other traditional big-box stores like Home Depot and Costco to come in, primarily because those businesses treat employees more equitably.

"The kind of employer Wal-Mart is, well, it's a corporation that is not doing a lot to help the quality of life for the people I represent," she said. "In general, they pay low wages, give very few benefits and no health coverage. So they contribute to the cost of society in general. If someone doesn't have health coverage, they have to go to an emergency room for a cold, and we all pay for that."

As recently as last Monday, nearly 200 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers' and Teamsters unions - along with labor leaders and business owners - demonstrated in front of the State House in support of the proposed legislation.

Unionized supermarket workers feel particularly threatened by Wal-Mart. According to a report prepared by the labor studies department at Rutgers, 96 percent of the more than 67,000 supermarket workers in New Jersey are union members, and all receive health benefits. Moreover, that work force - with more employees than in either the telecommunications or casino industries, two other large employers in the state - is spread throughout New Jersey. There are about 500 supermarkets in New Jersey, with at least one in almost half of the state's 566 municipalities.

What worries supermarket employees is the likelihood that the Wal-Mart supercenters will sell groceries as well. After all, they reason, Wal-Mart is now the largest purveyor of groceries in the United States and if supermarkets are adversely affected by Wal-Mart's entry into the market, then their jobs suffer.

Despite the large number of supermarkets, there is rarely a protest when a new one opens or an existing one expands, said Carol Kauffman-Scarborough, an associate professor of marketing at the Rutgers-Camden school of business.

"People have loyalties to certain chains and even particular stores, but if one comes closer, they may go there," Ms. Kauffman-Scarborough said. "I'm not sure people in New Jersey are buying their groceries at Wal-Mart yet, but if they come in proliferation, it would be interesting to see how those grocery shopping patterns change."

So far, that has not happened, but the union members are often at the forefront of the charge against Wal-Mart nonetheless. Carol Gay, one of the community leaders who is fighting a proposed Wal-Mart in Lawrenceville, credits the United Food and Commercial Workers Union with alerting her last year to the chain's intentions.

'Quality of Life Issue'

"Sometimes you don't know these things are even coming up, so when Peg Michalowski, the union representative, alerted us, we residents started organizing against it," Ms. Gay said. "Wal-Mart is terrible to its workers, but that isn't the only issue here. Where they want to put it would put traffic at a standstill. It's a quality of life issue here, too. We don't need more stores and we certainly don't need more giant ones."

For now, the Lawrenceville site is only in the planning stage, with even its initial proposal before a screening committee of the planning board not due until March 31. Still, Ms. Gay's group plans to be out in force at that meeting and its Web site implores: "If you have an anti-Wal-Mart T-shirt, wear it. Bring some signs."

Ms. Gay said the loosely knit statewide coalition opposed to Wal-Mart development - made up largely of residents from Deptford, Edison, Pennsville, Toms River, Lumberton and Voorhees - meets once a month or so to exchange ideas and information.

"Each one of us is in a different stage," she said. "Some have lawsuits. Some are just in the planning. Some want to stop construction. It's just not the type of employer we want. If Costco can pay living wages to people and still have good profits, then why should we want Wal-Mart, who could care less about any of us."

Not that Wal-Mart is the only target of concerned shoppers.

Regina Discenza, who started the Concerned Citizens of Lacey, has been fighting a proposed Home Depot in her largely rural township.

"Yes, Wal-Mart is the worst, but our ultimate goal is to make big-box stores go away," Ms. Discenza said. "Here they want to take away one of our last big pieces of open land. In Brick, where they thwarted one a few years ago, it was about contaminating the water supply with runoff. These companies just don't care about local issues."

In Deptford, Mr. Campbell's group knows that an abandoned office building, while preferable to a proposed Wal-Mart, is not good for his town.

"I'm a salesman," he said. "I'm not anti-business. But we have enough retail here. What we need is to bring in light manufacturing, office parks, real tax ratables. Our elected leaders need to take more initiative, not just say: 'Wow. Wal-Mart is ready to come in and build.' There has to be more foresight than that.

"Three Wal-Marts in one town," Mr. Campbell said with some exasperation in his voice. "It finally had to get to that to motivate everyone."

Copyright 2005 (http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html) The New York Times Company (http://www.nytco.com/)

March 31st, 2005, 11:58 AM
Wow...that reminds me of Greenville, SC, save for actual opposition to an over-abundance of big box stores. I cant understand how people can function with such bland scenery. I need something different than that, which is why i live in St. Augustine, FL. We dont have to see Wal-Mart if we dont want to.