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Rethinking Wal-Mart 

To some, the name Wal-Mart means convenient one-stop shopping and discount prices. To others, it evokes visions of suburban sprawl, foreign sweatshop-produced merchandise, even an evil empire. After all, what other retail chain has inspired such attacks as author Bill Quinn's recent book, How Wal-Mart is Destroying America and the World?

Usually, the feared pattern goes like this: Wal-Mart sets up shop on the outskirts of a small or medium-sized town; soon thereafter, mom-and-pop stores along Main Street start boarding up. But this oversimplification underscores the great irony of Sam Walton's retailing legacy. As UNO economist Tim Ryan puts it: "Nobody likes Wal-Mart because they're the big guys, but consumers like them. That's why they're the big guys."

Now, in New Orleans, a developer wants to turn the former St. Thomas Housing Development into a "Hope VI" public/private project -- a mixed-income community with a Wal-Mart Supercenter as its commercial hub. The $318 million plan, pitched by Historic Restoration Inc. (HRI) president Pres Kabacoff, includes $45 million in dedicated federal, state and city funds and another $25 million in bonds to be repaid by sales and property taxes at the Wal-Mart store.

Reports of a behemoth Wal-Mart settling into the heart of the city have alarmed many area preservationists. We share some of their concerns, but after reviewing HRI's proposals, we like the idea and want to see it work.

Ryan also studied the proposal and says it can work. "This concept makes as much sense as anything I've ever seen to revitalize inner-city New Orleans," he says. "What they need ... is a big retailer that would generate enough sales tax to hold together the project, and that's where Wal-Mart comes in."

Opponents decry the project's method of funding, saying Wal-Mart would suck business off lower Magazine Street and other urban shopping districts, shuttering current stores and creating new blight. Ryan disagrees. He cites a recent Silas Lee poll that found what most of us already know: New Orleanians already shop at "big box" retail outlets in surrounding parishes. Says Ryan: "What this Wal-Mart will do is keep dollars in Orleans Parish; it will create new spending here." Ryan also agrees with Kabacoff's assertion that the city stands to gain about $30 million in new money generated from the project through property and additional sales tax revenues.

Indeed, when Gambit Weekly contacted businesses along Magazine Street, we found many stores -- including coffeeshops, antique shops, imported furniture stores, fine jewelry boutiques and restaurants -- don't see Wal-Mart as competition. Instead, they hope Wal-Mart will draw more shoppers to the area, just as large "anchor" stores do for shopping malls.

Ryan also brings up the fact that New Orleans' urban poor -- especially those who can't drive to suburbia -- would benefit greatly from discount shopping, a social and economic advantage that hasn't been calculated into any of Kabacoff's figures. Wal-Mart also would bring approximately 500 jobs with an array of benefits.

Kabacoff has shown he's willing to work with preservationists. When the Historic District Landmarks Commission demanded that he preserve seven 19th-century warehouses, Kabacoff convinced Wal-Mart brass to shrink their planned 1,000-space parking lot to 825 spaces so he could save the buildings. He also got Wal-Mart to adopt a brick facade to blend in aesthetically with nearby buildings. After viewing HRI's plans, we believe that the store, even at 213,000 square feet, will fit reasonably well with existing warehouses and factories along Tchoupitoulas Street.

We are concerned about traffic congestion. The main roadway to the shopping complex, however, would be Tchoupitoulas -- a road designed to withstand heavy industrial traffic. Magazine Street and the avenues of Washington, Jackson and Louisiana would likely take on heavier traffic. Further studies and discussion are needed -- and the city must improve public bus lines for employees and shoppers at the 24-hour store.

When considering these details, however, we should not lose sight of the most important benefit of HRI's proposal. Kabacoff's plan embraces the ideas of "New Urbanism," a movement that is reshaping cities that seek to replace drug- and crime-riddled housing projects with mixed-income communities. In this case, the residences would include subsidized rentals, upper- and middle-class houses and condos, an assisted living facility for seniors, and office and retail space.

For this reason, urban planning guru David Rusk, who has worked extensively in New Orleans, doesn't believe Wal-Mart would destroy the city. "What is truly destroying the city you love is the intense concentration of poverty," he has written. New Orleans, he stresses, desperately needs 10 such HOPE VI projects. We should not pass up this opportunity.

We thus support HRI's proposal. At the same time, we urge Kabacoff to continue his dialogue with preservationists, who we hope will embrace new methods of urban planning -- and rethink the way they look at Wal-Mart.

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