Friday, March 18, 2011

Yes! Organic's Gary Cha urges for Wal-Mart community benefits agreement in op-ed

The following op-ed piece by Gary Cha, owner of the Yes! Organic grocery stores, appears in the new issue of the Washington Business Journal:

One retailer’s wish for Wal-Mart
Washington Business Journal - by Gary Cha
Date: Friday, March 18, 2011

Bringing locally sourced organic foods to underserved Washington neighborhoods has been my life’s passion, spanning 28 years and seven community markets.

From our first location on Connecticut Avenue to our newest store in Anacostia, our continued expansion has proved that all neighborhoods — regardless of economic status — welcome access to healthy food choices.

We’ve honed our model, spending more time listening than talking. We pride ourselves on giving our customers more of what they want and less of what we think they need. This business model has allowed us to prosper.

Hence, I urge D.C. political leaders to follow a similar course in addressing Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s proposal to build four stores in the District.

In the same way our elected officials listen to Wal-Mart’s lobbyists who are spreading lots of largess around town, I urge that they hear people like me, joined by members of the Think Local First D.C. business alliance who have survived tough economic times and earned our stripes as a vital part of the D.C. community, especially in underserved and low-income areas.

We chose to be part of these communities because the people living there deserve healthy choices. Our Pennsylvania Avenue, Georgia Avenue and 14th Street stores are all part of mixed-use developments, with housing or other retail operations that celebrate neighborhood revitalization.

Like the products we offer, we strive to be an organic part of the community. We’ve stood our ground against national competitors like Whole Foods, settling on a kind of peaceful coexistence that makes all consumers beneficiaries.

No one can argue against a healthy mix of national, small and locally owned businesses. But I question whether Wal-Mart, given its size and habit of crushing competitors, will be willing to coexist.

Look no further than a track record that reaps devastation on competitors, neighbors, employees and local governments. The new jobs Wal-Mart promises should be measured against better-paying jobs that may be lost. According to a recent study, for every two jobs Wal-Mart creates, three jobs are lost.

Another study found that when a Wal-Mart opened in Chicago in 2006, one in four retail businesses within a mile of the store closed within a year.

Locally owned businesses like Yes! Organic Market plow our profits back into the economy. We invest mightily in D.C. with stable jobs and advancement opportunities for employees. We serve on local boards and attend advisory neighborhood commission meetings.

We come to those venues, not with one-time payoffs to win backers — a practice that characterizes Wal-Mart’s lobbying tactics — but with respect for the communities where we live and work.

Our local officials should take a cue from Wal-Mart’s impact in other communities and assure a level playing field for local businesses that have invested capital and sweat equity in D.C.

How can you compete with the biggest retailer on earth? The answer rests here in D.C. Political and community leaders can exert leverage. This company has literally saturated rural and suburban communities in this country. All that remains for Wal-Mart growth are urban centers like D.C.

So, the question is not what we get from Wal-Mart coming. It should be what we demand from the company in the first place and over the long haul that will justify it staying.

An enforceable, measurable plan could chart a new path for Wal-Mart and give our capital city an opportunity to set a standard that others can embrace.

Wal-Mart’s foray here may be part of its urban experiment. But we have lived a rich, urban experience and gained as much as we’ve given along the way.

Unless the D.C. Council demands that Wal-Mart codify its pledges in an enforceable community benefits agreement, the District’s economic future is at risk.

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