January 27, 2005

Wal-Mart Opens Doors in Southwest Ithaca

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Yesterday marked the grand opening of Wal-Mart store 4250 at the new South Meadow Square along Route 13. Braving the ice and wind, throngs of Ithacans roamed 142,000 square feet teeming with everything from sandblasting kits to high-end televisions. By 3 p.m., the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity, and families struggled to keep their children from rummaging through towers of toy trucks and $5.00 DVDs. Nearly half of the store’s 300 employees stood in bright new uniforms, waiting for any curious or confused consumers.

“All of the customers I’ve seen so far have been wonderful,” said co-manager Tammy Ball. “They give you a fair chance to take care of things.”

After nearly a decade of dealing with construction delays, zoning regulations and community concerns, Wal-Mart’s opening is perceived by some locals as a a boon for the city’s perilous economy, while others view it as a possible threat to Ithaca’s locally-owned retail stores. One customer shopping for remote controls said that “if there was something like Wal-Mart owned by a local person — and Lord knows there’s not — I would support that more than the whole conglomerate of Wal-Mart stores. No one is able to match the extent of their operation here, but I would rather shop locally any time than shop here.” According to Ball, Wal-Mart will have a minimal effect on both local businesses and so-called “big-box” stores.

“I don’t think it will be too significant. We have pretty much a little bit of everything. A place like Wegman’s is more specialized; it’s just food. I guess Target is similar, but low prices is the main focus here. Better value for the customers.”

Wal-Mart is expected to contribute over $400,000 to Tompkins county’s sales tax revenue, generating funds that will be used to improve roads and social services. Additionally, the store has pledged to give money to local charities and schools.

“We focus a lot on the community,” Ball said. “For the grand opening, we gave away $32,000 throughout the police and fire departments, schools and other non-profit organizations. We do bonus grants and civic grants. We donate to the Children’s Miracle Network. We offer low prices. We have jobs available. It’s a matter of meeting with the community and seeing how we can help.”

Some Ithacans have voiced objections to the store’s stated business practices, however. Following wider criticisms of Wal-Mart from national organizations, such as the National Labor Relations Board and the United Food and Commerical Workers Union, local government and labor activists have been cautious of embracing Wal-Mart completely. Citing concerns with low wages, sexual discrimination and the company’s alleged antagonism toward unionization, the Tompkins County Living Wage Coalition and County Legislature members have been meeting with Wal-Mart representatives this week.

Yesterday, those concerns did not seem urgent or even relevant to most of the shoppers. One cusomter, a local business proprieter who declined to be named, was adamant that the city had more important concerns than investigating the employee wages and benefits of one particular store.

“It’s not right for the local authorities – for example, the mayor – to question this company on how much they’re going to pay … An individual has the right to work here for six dollars or not. That’s the choice of an individual, not the city.” He added, “Did [the city council] go into Lowe’s or Home Depot or Target and question those people? No. I think it’s very unjust that the city would do that. It’s frankly embarassing. The city should focus on taking the tax revenues that these stores are producing, and thank these stores for coming here. They need to work on lowering our taxes, especially our real estate taxes … so it’s easier for the livable wage to come down rather than on what Wal-Mart is paying people.” Ball said that Wal-Mart’s salaries “vary by job positions, but the least you can get is $6.50/hour.” A 2002 study by the Alternatives Federal Credit Union said that the minimum amount necessary for basic needs is $8.44/hour. Wal-Mart contends that their wages are determined by survyeing other businesses in the area. Nationally, 50 percent of Wal-Mart employees in 2003 did not continue into 2004.

Wal-Mart has also been scrutinized for its sale of weapons and ammunition. Yesterday around 4 p.m., a young teenager attempted to give money to an adult in order to purchase a large knife. However, a cashier witnessed the exchange and refused to sell the knife to either party, an event which a Sun reporter observed.

But Wal-Mart’s employees seem to appreciate their new jobs. Kevin Maguire, 17, used to work for K-Mart (located in front of South Meadow Square), but says that he “like[s] Wal-Mart better than any place else, from the first time I saw it to the time I applied for it. It’s completely great. Everybody accepts you. They don’t look at you like you’re the new guy. You’re a part of the team.”

Glenda Lee Savon, 47, worked at the Wal-Mart in Serra, Pennsylvania for three years.

“I came up to work for Dave [Jacobson, the store manager],” she said. “This one is better put together. It’s a nicer looking store.”

In order to talk to store employees for this article, all Sun interviews were conducted under Ball’s supervision.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Sun Associate Arts & Entertainment Editor