BOSTON — Walmart, one of the world’s largest retailers, says it is looking to open a store in Boston. The company has hired a local commercial real estate firm to scout possible locations and has engaged a local public relations firm to help sell the idea.
The Walmart plan is causing concern among some local businesses and public officials. A community meeting about Walmart will be held in Dudley Square Thursday night.
There’s speculation that one of the locations for a Walmart store is on Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury.
Walmart Vs. Local Businesses
The nearby Dudley Square district is home to small, locally based businesses, among them Tropical Foods on Washington Street, directly across from the vacant lot on Melnea Cass Boulevard. The store was founded more than three decades ago by an immigrant from Cuba. Now a third generation of his family is running Tropical Foods. Ronn Garry Jr. and his brother bought it from their father five years ago.
“My grandfather grew the business from just 2,000 square feet, started the business, my father grew it into its current size, and my brother and I want to grow it as well,” Garry said.
In July, the Garry brothers were among four groups submitting proposals to the Boston Redevelopment Authority for city-owned parcels of land in this area.
“We wanted to build this new store, and it would be more than twice the size of the existing store, that’s where (the) Walmart situation, you know, presents a little bit of a wrinkle.”
Walmart has not submitted a proposal for the BRA properties, but admits that it is looking into several possible locations in the city.
That has caught Garry off-guard.
“For years and years, everyone said, ‘You’ll never see Walmart in the city, there’s not enough room.’ And then somewhere along the line Walmart realized that they had saturated the suburbs and they came up with this new concept called the Walmart neighborhood store, which is essentially a grocery store, and now they’re really targeting the cities,” Garry said.
Walmart currently has 47 stores and two Sam’s Clubs in Massachusetts. Boston is the latest big city it’s targeting.
“We have four stores in Philly, we have four stores planned for Washington, D.C., we have two stores in Chicago with nine more on the way,” said Steve Restivo, Walmart’s senior director of community affairs.
So far the retailer has gotten a mostly cool reception from top officials in Boston, starting with Mayor Thomas Menino.
“Walmart is a huge corporation, what they do is they come into a community and all the mom and pop stores disappear eventually, and the money goes to Arkansas,” Menino said. “I want the money to stay here with the mom and pop stores, put local people to work.”
But Restivo seems unaware of Menino’s opinion.
“Have you met with the mayor directly, and have you met with any of the city councilors?” I asked Restivo.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“You met with Mayor Menino?”
“And his response to you was?”
“I don’t know that there was a specific response. It was a conversation,” Restivo said. “We continue to keep his office updated on our progress in the city, just like we would with any mayor in any city across the country.”
“He seems to be against having one in the city,” I tell Restivo.
“OK. I, I, ah, I don’t know,” Restivo responded.
Walmart’s local public relations consultant later admitted that Restivo had not talked directly with the mayor.
All this is going on as the city works on a plan to revitalize Dudley Square. The Menino administration has promised to anchor the district by relocating Boston Public School headquarters there.
“Almost every building was either partially or totally vacant, and we’ve gotten all of them open and a lot of them renovated,” said Joyce Stanley, the executive director of Dudley Square’s main streets.
“Now we need to build a better mix of businesses in a bad economy. so to have a large major store come here, that’s going to undermine that whole process.”
Stanley wants to preserve the diversity of the neighborhood, and she wants to find a way to grow longtime area businesses such as Tropical Foods.
Garry says the benefits go beyond his store.
“When you have an independent local supermarket, it’s also where to you buy your goods. We spent $2.4 million a year with local meat vendors, produce vendors, and Walmart buys nationally,” Garry said. “They’re buying from Arkansas or direct from California, so it’s not just the jobs at Tropical Foods or the economic impact of Tropical Foods, but it’s where our dollars are being spent and where those dollars are being recycled within the community, at these local vendors as well.”
To Many Consumers, Cheaper Is Better
But that’s not what many Tropical Food customers are thinking about when they hear that Walmart may be coming to the area.
Customers, such as 78-year-old Elfreda Wright, who moved here from Jamaica two years ago: “I hope I will live to see it come,” she said, laughing.
“I love Walmart. They should bring a Walmart here in this area, because it’s, it’s cheaper,” said Veronca Boyd, who comes to Tropical Foods from the South End.
But, “There is a cost to low cost, and I think people need to know that,” said City Councilor Tito Jackson.
“Walmart would not be a good fit in Roxbury and in the Melnea Cass area. It is a very sensitive business district, with a lot of small businesses, and this organization has a history of putting out of business many of our small businesses,” Jackson said.
Restivo responded, saying, “I think it’s a nice talking point. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of statistics and facts to support that. What we find more often is the case that the opposite is true — our stores actually serve as magnets for growth and development.”
Restivo said Walmart looks forward to proving that “in and around Boston.” However, the retailer doesn’t plan to send a representative to Thursday night’s community meeting.