Yes, we should care about Wal-Mart

We come neither to praise Wal-Mart nor to bury it. All’s fair in love, war and American capitalism, right?

And far be it from us to pooh-pooh the promise of 250 new jobs in North Kitsap or the “always low prices” that have made the Arkansas-based retail chain – with 3,000 stores – the nation’s largest. We might, as the corporate logo would have it, be one big smiley face.

Would that our little world were so simple. While the consumer in us likes a good bargain, the citizen in us knows that how we spend our dollars has political, social and cultural effects too, and can come with “sometimes high prices” that we don’t intend. So the appearance of a “Big Box” on the retail horizon – in a new shopping district that will be as close to the north end of the island as Winslow Way – is probably worth a little thought by all of us.

First, consider the stories you’ve read on the Review’s Business page over the past year or 18 months. New entrepreneurs springing up; businesses growing, expanding, joining with other merchants to form new enterprises entirely. Behind each story, you see faces that take their place in the community as parents, friends, voters, supporters of community organizations.

Consider too a lesson from Macroeconomics 101, the “multiplier effect,” the phenomenon by which dollars spent in a specific economy recirculate locally, passing from one till or pocketbook or bank account to the next. When we purchase goods at a local business, we know that our dollars will be plowed back into the community many times over in the form of salaries and rent, local taxes, purchases from other local stores and suppliers, contributions to local organizations. You may pay more by shopping at smaller, local stores. But you get more for your money – a healthy community, and merchants who live in your midst and nurture their businesses with your help and support and input.

Can Main Street and the Big Box coexist?

Well, the literature is full of examples of the shriveling effect of big national retailers on older chains and Mom ‘n Pops. To see this principle in action, one need look no further than Bremerton, its once-splendid downtown reduced to vacancy and blight by the advent of Silverdale’s mall district.

With regard to the outfit at hand, it seems to have inspired a growing number of detractors. Their charges: low-paying jobs, a poor track record for providing health benefits, the arguably “predatory pricing” by which smaller local competitors are undercut and forced out, perhaps costing as many local jobs as a “megastore” creates. If nothing else, it seems obvious that profit accrued at national chain outlets is shipped out of a local economy, into the hands of distant executives and investors. The fact that five heirs to the Walton concern are listed among the nation’s 10 wealthiest individuals is not a coincidence.

But again, we come neither to praise Wal-Mart nor to bury it. The company has its fans, and certainly some investors in our midst. So we will continue to cover its plans to move into the North Kitsap market, its corporate goals, and the benefits it promises, as well as the deleterious effects predicted by foes.

But we should all remember that there is a relationship between how we spend our dollars, and how our community develops. Are we consumers first, or citizens? The future of Winslow Way may well depend on our answer.

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