Wal-Mart woos SE Raleigh skeptics

Giant retailer's first 'community action committee' will hear neighbors' concerns

Staff WriterMarch 20, 2006 

Even though the house was more than a few miles from the nearest grocery store, every mall and even a bank, Michelle Harrell couldn't have been happier when she bought her first home in Riverbrooke.

Nearby convenience services would have been nice. But, in this middle-class Southeast Raleigh subdivision, Harrell could paint the walls, plant what she wanted in the yard and manage the mortgage on her own.

Now that a retailer famous for selling everything from shrubs to shoes has proposed a 204,000-square-foot store near her home, Harrell isn't a happier homeowner. The proposed store is a Wal-Mart.

"I'm with making the community a nice place to live, work and play," she said. "But why do we need to be surrounded by Wal-Marts? I just don't think they are very good for this community or this country."

As Wal-Mart works to win city approval for its plans in Southeast Raleigh, it also will have to work to change or at least challenge the way Harrell and others like her think about the store.

In Southeast Raleigh, Wal-Mart is experimenting with a new strategy with an old-fashioned feel.

The company soon will convene the country's first Wal-Mart "community action committee." The committee will help Wal-Mart better understand concerns and philanthropic needs in an increasingly diverse Southeast Raleigh, said Tara Stewart, a senior public relations manager for the company.

Stewart has been reassigned from Bentonville, Ark., to South Carolina to handle public relations in the Carolinas.

The committee will be formed by the company and made up of elected officials, "community leaders" and people who support the Wal-Mart proposal, Stewart said.

It will become a listening post and help the company direct the $20,000 to $30,000 in grants Wal-Mart typically gives when it opens a new store.

The committee isn't the company's first attempt to influence public opinion in Southeast Raleigh. The company took architectural drawings of the shopping center to community meetings in January and February. It asked a team of consultants to explain the improvements to area roads that the company would be required to make to deal with the 14,546 trips (or 7,273 cars) the shopping center is expected to bring to the area each day.

Residents peppered company representatives, including Stewart, with questions about the company's Southeast Raleigh plans as well as corporate policies and labor practices. The company distributed a handout labeled "Wal-Mart: Good for America's Communities." A coalition of community groups passed out its own fliers titled "What's Wrong with Walmart?" [sic] that challenged many of the company's claims.

Wal-Mart is facing similar challenges in cities across the country. So Wal-Mart has reassigned a team of public relations professionals from its Bentonville, Ark., offices to areas where it hopes to build new stores. The company aims to open 300 new stores each year.

It has created a Web site, walmartfacts.com, where the company challenges the idea that it is bad for the global economy and American workers. And this month The New York Times reported that a firm working for Wal-Mart has enlisted conservative bloggers to sing the company's praises.

In Raleigh, Michelle Harrell and William Goodwin attended the meetings this winter. Harrell left unconvinced that Wal-Mart will be good for her corner of the city.

Goodwin arrived a Wal-Mart supporter and left that way. Goodwin lives in Garner but grew up on a family farm that is now the site of Southeast Raleigh High School. He owns several pieces of property in Southeast Raleigh where he hopes to develop commercial facilities.

Goodwin said he believes Wal-Mart has done a good job trying to communicate with Southeast Raleigh residents. He has been disappointed by the response. For years, residents have complained about the limited number of grocery stores and other services in Southeast Raleigh, Goodwin said.

"Wal-Mart is a shot in the arm, a chance to get something going down here," he said from his office in Southeast Raleigh. "But change doesn't come easy. You can't have country estates, no traffic and plenty of retail, too. It just doesn't work that way."

He is just the sort of person Wal-Mart will look to as it forms its first community action committee.

Stewart was reluctant Wednesday to call the committee part of a corporate master plan. But if the concept works in Southeast Raleigh, it likely will be tried in other parts of the country, she said.

Staff writer Janell Ross can be reached at 829-4698 or jross@newsobserver.com.

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