Wal-Mart Stores Inc., often accused by critics of harming local businesses, announced Tuesday it plans to build more than 50 stores in struggling urban neighborhoods over the next two years to create jobs and help small establishments.
Chief Executive Lee Scott said Tuesday the new stores would generate between 15,000 and 25,000 jobs and be located in neighborhoods with high crime or unemployment rates, on sites that are environmentally contaminated, or in vacant buildings or malls in need of revitalization.
Ten of those stores will anchor “Wal-Mart Jobs and Opportunity Zones” that will help local businesses, especially minority and women-run enterprises, with free advertising, grants to local chambers of commerce and seminars and advice on doing business near Wal-Mart and with Wal-Mart. The move is part of what Wal-Mart calls an effort to be a better community partner.
Scott said Wal-Mart already has a record of saving consumers money and supporting local charities, but now wants to foster local small businesses.
“We see that we can be better for communities than we have been in the past,” Scott told reporters on a conference call after visiting a new Chicago store that will anchor the first such zone. The other nine sites will be announced in the coming months.
Scott said the over 50 new stores in blighted neighborhoods will all go into big metro areas, where Wal-Mart is starting to expand after building its base in mainly rural areas.
The stores could generate more than $100 million in state and local tax revenue, he said.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., already has plans to open between 335 and 370 new U.S. stores this year after 341 last year and has said it sees room for more than 1,500 additional stores in the United States in the coming years, on top of nearly 3,200 it already operates.
In the face of opposition to stores in some neighborhoods and mounting attacks from unions and other organized critics, Wal-Mart has gone on the offensive to portray itself as a good corporate citizen that saves working Americans money.
In February, it recruited former civil rights leader Andrew Young to head a group of community leaders that Wal-Mart funds to speak up on its behalf as Working Families for Wal-Mart. Young told The Associated Press at the time that one of the reasons he supported Wal-Mart was because it was more willing than other retailers to go into low-income urban and rural communities.
Wal-Mart critics dismissed the new program as a publicity stunt.
“Rather than address the serious issues of unaffordable health care, poverty wages, crime, and sprawl, Wal-Mart’s latest and greatest public relations stunt is to try to rebuild a fraction of the very communities and small business it has helped destroy,” said Chris Kofinis, spokesman for WakeUpWalMart.com, a campaign group funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
But Scott said Wal-Mart’s “opportunity zones” in 10 blighted areas would help local business including smaller rivals, like hardware stores, dress shops and bakeries.
“I don’t think we’re going to draw a line that says that if you sell anything that’s sold in a Wal-Mart store then you can’t participate. I think that would exclude too many people,” Scott said.
Scott said seminars would show local businesses how to profit from being located near the large traffic volume generated by a Wal-Mart store, as well as how to do business with Wal-Mart.
There will also be $500,000 in grants for small business in the 10 zones, and free advertising in local newspapers and Wal-Mart’s in-store television network for up to five local business each quarter.