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WHITE: Wal-Mart — Too Big to Trust

For years, I lived in Ward 7 near SkyLand. If there ever was a neighborhood that had waited and was due support from the city, it was Skyland. 

But was Wal-Mart really ever a solution for Skyland? 

Yes, it was a bait-and-switch. Yes, I think that the mayor and attorney general should work together on a lawsuit on behalf of the District and then let Wal-Mart have it right in the mouth.

Yes, we need jobs and shopping options for fresh foods and reasonably priced goods near our homes. We also need to recognize the truth.  

In the same way that the U.S. Congress uses us as a pawn in a never-ending political chess match, some corporations play us against other municipalities, twisting arms to see who can take the most pain and give up the largest incentives. If they break their word after a deal is made, they think “So what.” 

Wal-Mart did not come to the District to revitalize Skyland or any other neighborhood. Wal-Mart came to suck out profits from a new market. 

At nearly half a trillion dollars in revenue and $120 billion in gross profits, it was too big to trust. 

If Wal-Mart wanted to invest in SkyLand, it could have. To naysayers who claim it already had invested real money, I say that its investment to date was a pittance – less than a rounding error in its financials. 

The more we all think about it, the more incredulous we should be about what happened. And we should remember a couple of things.

First, our government officials have a responsibility to cut good deals – good for the residents, I mean – with developers that want to build here and with businesses that want to make money from District residents. These deals and incentive packages must be balanced by enforcement mechanisms and penalties so that if a business breaks a deal, it pays a price.

Furthermore, we have to be specific in writing about what we want. Did the incentive package require developing Skyland first? Obviously not, although that is what was discussed in all the media coverage. 

Similarly, the District government should not release businesses from legal and regulatory requirements – as with affordable-housing requirements – as a matter of course. Our perspective should be “Don’t like our deal. I bet the next business will.”  

Second, we have to make doing business in the District more transparent. The old way of doing business in D.C. was about insiders. Many still see DC as a corrupt place where insiders get special treatment. 

Even the appearance of a pay-to-play environment scares small- to medium-size businesses away. We have to fix the system and welcome the kinds of business that will grow with us and become community partners, not because they are giants but because they are not giants. 

We want business owners who look residents eye-to-eye, not ones who look past us to the next new market. Its small- to medium-size businesses that deserve our limited resources and the best incentive packages. This is how we build sustainable communities and neighborhoods with our residents. 

People like to play lotteries. With $2 from your pocket, you too could have a chance to win over $1 billion as in the recent Powerball jackpot. It sounds wonderful, but communities do not win by playing the lottery. It does not put food on residents’ tables each night or pay for medicine or rent. In a lottery, there are at best only a few winners and a lot of losers. 

We thought Wal-Mart was the Powerball jackpot, but in fact Wal-Mart was the one selling us lottery tickets. Wal-Mart led us to expect that it would do something incredible for us and our communities. It didn’t. Instead, it cashed out our hope. It cost us time and money, and Skyland and surrounding communities are left with another broken promise. 

Ultimately, the paper signed by Wal-Mart was worth about as much as a Powerball ticket with one matching number the day after a drawing. 

It’s time that the District government changes its focus to the kinds of businesses that want to be our partners, want a level-playing field and want to find homes in our neighborhoods. This is what will make a difference in the lives of our residents, not multinational companies that have records of mistreating their employees and that ready themselves with armies of lawyers for the time when they inevitably break their word. 

We should build our future, not wager on it.

White is a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C Council.

White is a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C Council.

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