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Against Wal-mart

19 July 2012

Certainly I was not going to miss a chance to protest against Walmart. A week ago while riding my bicycle to Emmorton Recreation Center, on the way back I saw a small sign near the corner of Laurel Bush Road and Emmorton Avenue – Public Meeting on the proposed Walmart on Plumtree Road.

I’m there, I thought. The meeting was at Patterson Mill High School so I could certainly reach the place by bicycle. As it turned out my mom and I went together. I had to go to the library first and inform Bob Hoff, who conducts the monthly book discussion group, that I would not be able to make it because the public meeting to protest Walmart was tonight. He said, “You should be there. More power to you.” I told another librarian that I was going and she was equally supportive. I did not ask them but I believed that their support came from any of a number of reasons – Race to the bottom wages, impact on local and global economy, environment, worker’s rights and culture of consumption.

When I arrived and saw the long lines outside Patterson Mill High school, I really wondered if this many people in Harford County were really against the business practices of a Big Box Giant like Walmart. In the library I had assumed it but out here in the pouring rain, I began to have my doubts. I started asking people in line, “are you pro or against?” People were reluctant to answer. “I’m here to get information,” one said. “Is there a difference?” said another? Finally I took my place at the end of the line and again asked someone behind me if she was pro or against and she said, “Oh, everyone here is against!” I was not sure how she could be so sure of it.

Inside the packed auditorium I saw some people carrying small signs “No to 924 Walmart.” Soon after the Walmart presentation began hostility from the audience became clear. Still, I was not certain that it was the majority – only later when one of the speakers asked people to stand up if they were opposed to the Walmart, it was obvious that more than 95% of the people were ready to stand up and be counted against the proposed entry of the store.

But why? Because of increased traffic in the adjoining residential areas. There is already Festival Shopping center on 924 – which has already increased local traffic. But Walmart is in a different league. And what I realized is, that though these people are here saying no today – if the store comes up, they will shop there. Hence the increased traffic. If they were really against Walmart, there would not be any traffic to worry about now, would there?

They took questions on index cards and the Community Relations person, Nina Alberts, read them out and allowed the Walmart representatives to answer. She also invited people to come to the mike and ask questions or say what was on their minds. She sorted the cards by topic and avoided duplication by reading out a question and saying, that “many people have raised this same concern,” so that one would have a greater chance of actually getting to hear all the concerns raised. In this sense I respected her for taking her job seriously and trying to use the time wisely to see that more voices were heard. But some of the people who came forward to stand in line did not take kindly to being told that the line had reached its limit. Having come up, they wanted to have their say. And one after another, all they had to say was about traffic!

At one point Ms. Albert said, there are other concerns that have come up. “We have had a number of people ask, what will happen to the existing store in the Constant Friendship location?” She proceeded to read out a few of the cards, raising the question from different angles, in somewhat varying terms. Then she invited 4 people to come forward with questions on this aspect. Presumably she would proceed like this, picking up each topic in order, reading out from the cards and then inviting people who wanted to say or ask something on that topic to come to the mike and speak. In this way she could have gone through each topic in 15-20 minutes and covered five or six topics in the 1.5 hours that remained after the opening presentation by Walmart and the architect.

I point this out not to praise Ms. Albert but to alert people in towns where such public meetings are planned, to be aware of this and make use of the format to see that a variety of concerns are aired.

As it turned out, people were so keen to raise their own concern, that they seemed not to notice or not to care that it was the SAME concern that 15 people had already raised, namely traffic. So the time was not used as productively as it could have been – and this was not the fault of Walmart.

As the time approached 8:00 I went to stand in line to speak. This is what I said,

I would like to appreciate the people who are conducting this meeting, they are hardworking people, and if they lived in Bright Oaks or Patterson Mill or Laurel Bush Road, they would be sitting on that side [showing audience] too.

We have been talking about the impact that this store would have to these streets and these neighbourhoods, but when a Walmart comes into a neighbourhood its impact reaches far further than the immediate vicinity. We have heard people calling this road 924 and Emmorton Avenue, but I call this road Main Street. This is Main Street Bel Air – Walmart will have an impact on Main Street. Hats off to all the businesses that are still there on Main Street, but what will happen to them if there is a Walmart just 3 miles away? We are talking about the Walmart at Constant Friendship, which will become an abandoned building if this proposal passes- they are saying that it would be open for other retail, but if the most powerful corporation on the planet has given up on that location, what are the chances that another would succeed there? It will be a big empty abandoned place. What is going to happen to the small and medium sized businesses in the shopping center that is already here [Festival Mall] – when Walmart arrives if they go out of business, then we have more abandoned buildings in Harford County. This is not good for our communities, for our small businesses, for people’s employment, it is not good for the economic growth of the county. The impact of Walmart will be felt throughout the county and throughout the state and country. Walmart causes a race to the bottom in wages, not only here but also in the factories of their suppliers – when we talk about the global economy and its impact on our local economy, building more Walmart, is not a step in the direction we want to take.

Thought I got applause both in the midst of my statement and at the end, and though a reporter from Bel Air Patch and Aegis took my name, she does not seem to have found space to quote me in her news report, choosing instead, to focus only on traffic.

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