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Walmart Would Spoil Fresh Food Businesses in Harlem, Study Says

By Jeff Mays,
Published December 15, 2011/DNAinfo.com

HARLEM — A Walmart in the heart of Harlem would put 30 to 41 retailers who sell groceries and fresh produce out of business during its first year of operation, a study released Thursday by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer claimed.

During the second year of operation, an additional 18 to 25 stores would go out of business in a one mile radius, according to the report titled "Food for Thought" which was authored by a Shira Gans, a food and economic development policy analyst in Stringer's office.

The study surveyed 304 food retailers within 10,000 feet of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue and used data from studies of other areas where Walmart has opened stores to calculate the local impact.

A 2009 study from Loyola University in Chicago found that 25 percent of all competing businesses within a mile of a new Walmart went out of business within a year. In the second year, the rate of closure was 40 percent.

Even if Walmart were to open one of its urban format stores with 120,000 square feet, there would still be a net loss of 56,500 to 82,000 square feet of fresh food retail space in Harlem, the report said.

"We cannot close our eyes to the destructive impact a Walmart store would have on small business owners and the retail food landscape of Harlem, or any other New York neighborhood," said Stringer.

Standing on Lenox Avenue at 125th Street with store owners and advocacy groups, Stringer was repeatedly interrupted by pro-Walmart hecklers. A man also handed out a Walmart folder with a sheet listing six reasons to "ignore" Stringer's study.

Stringer said he had no proof that the vacant lot on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue would become a Walmart store but he called it a "model site."

Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said the methodology of the Loyola University study was flawed and has been repeatedly criticized because it failed to count new businesses that opened.

Stringer's "Food for Thought" study is similarly flawed because food retailers were defined as businesses that sold a minimum of three fruits or vegetables, Restivo said.

"The truth is that anyone who has been to the west side of Chicago knows the positive economic impact we've had there, just like anyone who walks the streets of Harlem knows residents want more affordable options when it comes to healthy, nutritious food," said Restivo.

Stringer also supported the opening of East River Plaza in East Harlem which has a Target and a Costco, Restivo pointed out. In addition, New Yorkers are interested in Walmart and the city needs more fresh, affordable food, which Walmart promotes, representatives for the company said.

Instead of dismissing the study, Stringer said Walmart should work with area businesses and leaders regarding its plans to enter the New York market.

Ruben Luna, who owns 11 supermarkets in Harlem, the Bronx and Queens, including a Key Food on Lenox Avenue and 140th Street where he employs 45 people, many who live in the area, said he fears Walmart would put him out of business.

"They sell everything. They own so many stores that price-wise, we can't compete," Luna said. "For so many years no one wanted to come to Harlem. We were neglected. Now that they see money here they want to come in and take advantage."

The vacant lot at Lenox Avenue and 125th Street has been the subject of recent speculation that a Walmart would be built there. ESmith Legacy Inc., a development company owned by NFL Hall-of-Fame member Emmitt Smith, is planning an $81 million project that includes a hotel and retail space there.

Walmart has made no secret of its desire to break into New York City. Walmart has received criticism for trying to win over supporters by making donations to area non-profits and a recent $1 million donation for citywide summer programs.

Maurice Linen, 45, an entrepreneur who lives in Harlem, was passing by Stringer's press conference and said he would welcome a Walmart. He used to work at a store located on the now-vacant Lenox Avenue site.

"I think Walmart would be a great thing because they hire African-Americans," he said. "Walmart is not going to destroy anything. This space has been vacant for at least five years. Would they rather leave the area blank?"