Carter Joseph saw firsthand what Walmart did to his hometown of Georgetown, S.C. The shuttered businesses, the bones of local stores that died when the big-box retailer opened a Supercenter just down the street.
"Walmart to me represents capitalism at its very worst," he said on Feb. 23 to a crowd of more than 250 people in the commons room of a church just half a mile north of Decatur. "Capitalism on steroids. Architecture at its worst."
Joseph lives less than one mile from Suburban Plaza, the mammoth shopping center which Selig Enterprises, the Atlanta-based developer, plans to redevelop with a 149,000-square-foot Supercenter as an anchor. Since news about the plan broke late last year, neighborhood residents have hammered out nonbinding agreements with the big-box retailer and developer over everything from bicycle racks to the location of wall signs. Others in this walkable, progressive burg (such as those in attendance tonight) have contributed more than $1,000 to hire a lawyer and spent Friday afternoons holding signs at the nearby intersection protesting Walmart.
Eyes wide with anger and fingers pointing to the ground in defiance, Joseph warned of doom should the big-box retailer join the neighborhood.
"They treat their employees like dirt," he said. "They treat their suppliers like dirt. And they'll treat this neighborhood like dirt, as they've treated countless towns and communities across this country."
Suburban Plaza isn't the only place where Walmart, which operates only five stores inside the Perimeter, has cast its gaze. Nearly 60 miles away in Athens, the college town — and even some of its progressive factions — has become divided over Selig's plans to transform several parcels on the edge of downtown into a 10-acre, mixed-use development that would most likely include a Walmart. Meanwhile, in Vine City, the historic and impoverished Atlanta neighborhood less than two miles from downtown's skyscrapers, the big-box retailer finally broke ground on an abandoned Publix it plans to expand into a store offering groceries, a pharmacy, and financial services.
After nearly 50 years of conquering rural and suburban America, Walmart has focused on its final frontier: U.S. cities. Since the early 2000s, the company has invested considerable political will (and cash) trying to elbow its way into urban areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The moves, which usually feature nasty drag-out fights with unions and agreements with neighborhood groups, ride on the promises of lower prices and more jobs. But after years of anti-Walmart websites, documentaries, and studies questioning whether the retailer's cutthroat business tactics and treatment of its employees are worth the cost savings, opponents are better prepared to push back against the mega-retailer that, according to one estimate, controls 33 percent of the grocery market. And for many — but not all — of the proposed stores, the battle to defend one's turf from terrible design, questionable labor policies, and low-cost goods that don't come from Target, has begun.
"This is a war," Donald Stack, a land-use attorney hired by the resident opposition group which wrangled the residents at the church on North Decatur Road. "It is a war for your community. It is a war for your property values. It is a war for your safety."