Walmart plans for growth in Maryland

With retail reshuffling comes local debate

  • Ted Janes of Bel Air holds a No Bel Air Walmart sign along route Rt 924 where the potential new Walmart will be.
Ted Janes of Bel Air holds a No Bel Air Walmart sign along route… (Nicole Munchel, Baltimore…)
November 11, 2012|By Alison Knezevich, The Baltimore Sun

Red anti-Walmart signs dot a stretch of Route 924 in Harford County, where people have packed public meetings and organized protests. Petitions are circulating through housing developments, and residents are writing to politicians.

But it's not corporate labor practices or the impact of discount pricing on nearby mom-and-pop stores — issues that have triggered protests in other communities — that have many residents in an uproar. They're upset over a three-mile move planned by the giant retailer, from Abingdon to Bel Air, where it wants to build a bigger store that offers more groceries.

"This is not a Walmart issue," said Bel Air resident Skip Panowitz, who opposes the proposed move. "A lot of these folks are Walmart shoppers, and they admit it. It's their favorite store. It's just the location."

These kinds of clashes may play out in communities across Maryland, as the giant retailer plans to expand stores or build from scratch to create eight more supercenters in a national reshuffling of its retail footprint.

While the company has long been a target of labor unions, environmentalists and others, today's critics are just as likely to raise ordinary development issues such as increased traffic — or even to decry the loss of their neighborhood Walmart.

More than half of Americans live within five miles of a Walmart, and opinions about the retailer — both positive and negative — run deep.

In Abingdon, residents near the current location worry about the loss of a convenient shopping option and a vacant eyesore that could be left behind. Residents near the proposed Bel Air site fear over-development in the area, while others support the proposal.

Many of Walmart's plans, such as the one in Harford County, involve relocating existing stores to sites where the company can build supercenters that offer a full line of groceries.

"They either expand or move stores every week. They want every original Walmart, or almost every original Walmart, to become a supercenter," said Charles Fishman, author of the book "The Walmart Effect."

Walmart has a highly sophisticated real estate operation for picking new locations to maximize customer traffic and profits, Fishman said. And the company "is very skilled at pitting jurisdictions against each other," tempting local officials with the prospect of tax revenue and jobs.

Still, it's getting harder for Walmart to open new stores, he said. Many of the good retail spots are taken, and communities have gotten better at organizing opposition.

"It's no secret what Walmart's impact is, and it's no secret what arguments you can muster to resist Walmart," Fishman said. "Twenty years ago, it was much harder for people who didn't want a Walmart to open."

The Walmart debate, however, has evolved.

Early resistance to Walmart stemmed from the damage the competition did to local merchants, Fishman said. But then, the rise of all big-box retailers meant the decline of independent retailers.

Now, he said, "those objections have less power just because the landscape is so different. There are fewer local merchants in many communities."

Walmarts can still spell trouble for traditional grocery stores that are already struggling to compete against both discount grocers and upscale food outlets, retail experts say.

"They've definitely pulled customers away and the grocery dollars away from supermarkets," said Jeremy Diamond, food consultant with the Diamond Group in Baltimore. "By them expanding more and more, it pulls away dollars from the independents and from the local chains and larger ones."

On the other hand, some local officials welcome Walmart as a strong anchor in shopping centers that can stimulate growth in an area. They also welcome promised jobs. The company says it has created more than 1,000 jobs in Maryland this year.

But labor unions say Walmarts push down wages for the community. Last month, some workers walked off the job in what they called the first-ever strikes in the company's history.

"Most of those jobs are part-time, where people can't make a living off them," said Patrick O'Neill, executive vice president and organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents employees of grocery stores including Safeway and Giant. "Now, especially when Walmart's almost reached a saturation point, I think more communities have definitely recognized the negative effects of Walmarts."

Maryland has 48 Walmarts, and the chain is planning more.

Nationally, "Walmart has been on a very big expansion kick for about the last three years," said supermarket analyst David J. Livingston of DJL Research.

The company has eight projects in the planning and approval process, including the Bel Air site, Walmart spokesman Bill Wertz said in a statement. Three of the projects are new supercenters, while the other five are expansions or relocations.

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