Who is guilty of killing downtown?

Wal-Mart may well be the Grim Reaper, but aren't shoppers the ones swinging the scythe?

Published January 5, 2006 9:43PM (EST)

Driving down Highway 301 in northern Florida two weeks ago, I saw something that hadn't been there the last time I passed that way -- a brand, spanking new Wal-Mart Supercenter smack in the middle of the town of Starke. It was hard to miss. Starke is looking pretty rundown these days, with a fair number of shuttered storefronts lining the main drag through town. But the Supercenter was all shiny and sparkly -- and extraordinarily popular. I learned later from local press reports that since the store opened up in late October, it has single-handedly transformed the traffic patterns of the entire region.

It's not hard to understand why. Supercenters are a middling-size town's downtown all by themselves. In Starke, the new 157,628-square-foot store (three times as big as a 15-year-old store that it replaced) "now features a full line of groceries as well as a bakery, a delicatessen, a frozen food section and meat, dairy and fresh produce sections. The store has 36 general merchandise departments including apparel and accessories, fine jewelry, a lawn and garden center, health and beauty aids, and a full line of electronics. It will be open to customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will include 21 full-service and nine express check-out lanes."

Comparing it with the bedraggled appearance of the rest of the town, it was natural to wonder if Wal-Mart is disemboweling the local economy, as so many of its critics claim it is. I was reminded of this today when I perused a new report on Wal-Mart released by a left-wing advocacy group called Campaign for America's Future.

The report declares that "Wal-Mart sucked $20 billion out of local economies this holiday season ... Crowds fighting to take advantage of the companys aggressive discounts gave the retail behemoth more than five times the sales of its closest competitor" -- a total of some $66 billion in sales in November and December.

"The new campaign slogan 'Wal-Mart: Killing Local Businesses One Main Street at a Time' isnt just rhetoric, it is reality. Across the country, from Beaverton, Ore., to Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., and even New York City, the announcement of a coming Wal-Mart sends shivers down the collective spine of local business owners."

This may well be true. And I have no particular quibble with the statistics -- they seem to jibe pretty closely with those presented in the soon-to-be-published "The Wal-Mart Effect" by Fast Company editor Charles Fishman. But judging by the long lines of cars looking for parking spaces at the Starke Supercenter, the arrival of a Wal-Mart also sends thrills of joy through local consumers. And there really needs to be better acknowledgment of this by Wal-Mart critics, particularly from the progressive, worker-friendly sorts who are behind the Campaign for America's Future.

Don't the throngs of North Florida residents flocking to Wal-Mart bear at least as much responsibility for killing their downtowns as Wal-Mart does? And shouldn't the cash that they are saving be part of the discussion as to how much money is being "sucked" out of the local economy? If, as Fishman points out, Wal-Mart's prices are 10 to 15 percent lower than those of other stores, then consumers may well have saved as much as $7 billion or $8 billion in November and December by shopping there. That's a fair piece of change.

The obvious question is, do the costs outweigh the benefits? And there are plenty of good reasons to argue that they do; that the total cumulative impact of Wal-Mart on the fabric of society is negative. But the unfortunate reality is that few minds are going to be changed by one-sided reports that do not even begin to acknowledge the very real reasons that people have for shopping at Wal-Mart -- or the responsibility that those shoppers bear for what kind of changes are wrought in their local communities.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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