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Walmart cometh 

The big-box retailer and progressive's worst enemy moves closer to the heart of metro Atlanta

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Staci Dixon (left) and Janet Mason are among the residents helping Good Growth DeKalb, an opposition group, fight the 149,000-square-foot Walmart location near Decatur. Company officials say many homeowners have voiced their support. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Staci Dixon (left) and Janet Mason are among the residents helping Good Growth DeKalb, an opposition group, fight the 149,000-square-foot Walmart location near Decatur. Company officials say many homeowners have voiced their support.

What opponents don't understand, Young says, is that no other grocers were thinking of locating there, even with public incentives. And the big-box retailer appears to be playing its cards right. Young says company executives don't plan to duplicate any services in the corridor and have held meetings with the area's merchants association. In addition, Walmart has shown preliminary interest in helping start a community improvement district, a self-taxing organization of businesses to help fund nearby infrastructure improvements. Walmart spokesman Glen Wilkins says the company is considering donations to nearby technical schools, churches, and community groups.

Even with the promises of short-term progress, some residents are concerned about what happens years down the road. The Supercenter could become a major draw not just for neighborhood residents who lack a grocery store, but for downtown, Cabbagetown, and southwest Atlanta residents seeking everything from lettuce to lawnmowers.

"There are also more than 200 jobs that will be available at this Walmart," Young says. "Hourly wage jobs with benefits in a market where we're at high unemployment? You can imagine our residents are very excited."

Not everyone is so optimistic. Harley Etienne, a Georgia Tech professor and Vine City homeowner who attended the frigid press conference welcoming Walmart, applauds the possibility of fresh and respectable food coming to the community. In addition to the usual questions about the impact to the local economy, he questions whether the addition of the big-box retailer will create the kind of spark the community, parts of which are wrestling with abandoned homes and underwater mortgages, needs. Making matters worse is the reality that Atlanta Public Schools might shutter the middle school serving the community as part of the redistricting process.

"Firms come and go," he says. "Retail outlets come and go. But schools are very important. Once you start closing schools, the game changes. Does a Walmart offset the loss of a middle school, a place where people come with their kids and organize their community? I don't know how a Walmart offsets the loss of that — or that the city understands that when you do those things in tandem, a Walmart is not a proxy for the school."

He adds: "It sounds good on paper, to throw something like that up, and it might even bring jobs. But we'll have to sift through the rhetoric. If the Walmart says it'll bring 500 jobs, how many are construction jobs that go away the minute they open doors? How many of the jobs have wages that people can live on? How many businesses and employees will Walmart displace if it siphons away existing business?"

On Monday morning in Vine City, more than 100 people gathered in the overgrown vacant lot between the former Publix store and the concrete foundations of never-built townhomes. Nearby, a vacant home doubles as a drug-buy drive-thru; a dog without a collar roams; and plastic bags litter the road. The people standing in the vacant lot, though, have hope in their eyes.

Standing in front of golden shovels, resting in a ceremonial patch of dirt, Walmart executives and elected officials — including Mayor Reed — welcomed the big-box retailer into the neighborhood.

"We're going to make this place a place that it should be," Reed said. "A place you can believe in. And a central force in that effort will have been Walmart's decision to make that investment when everyone else was walking away."

Officials' speeches blasted from a too-loud PA system and echoed off the boarded-up historic building which once housed the historic Paschal's Restaurant. The commentaries touched on Vine City, English Avenue, and the Atlanta University Center's past as a thriving commercial area and focused on its potential for greatness.

Speaking after the press conference, during which he announced that the construction of a controversial new stadium to host the Atlanta Falcons up the street and new transportation improvements would further boost the community, the mayor questioned others' doubts over Walmart's long-term impact.

"At some point, the community has to have an anchor in order to inspire and support small businesses," Reed told CL after the press conference. "When strong companies come into a community, it sends a signal to the broader community that this is a place where you should invest for the future."

The scene was one that inspired not just Walmart and city officials, but also some elderly residents of Vine City who hope the mayor is right. If you close your eyes, you can see the discount aisle as half-full, believing that the retailer's inevitable foray into other parts of the city — a micro-sized grocery store in downtown or Mechanicsville? — would do more good than harm.

Then you open your eyes and realize that, if the Walmart was willing to make a gamble in a community that, according to the mayor, every other grocer on the East Coast considered a no-go, what's to stop them from venturing to where help isn't necessarily needed — and money can be made?

"Right now we're more in the metro area," says Walmart's Wilkins. "As the opportunity presents itself to be in the city, we'll definitely take a look at that."

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