Little Houses, Big Boxes

Wal-Mart politicizes Inver Grove Heights

Wal-Mart is the biggest publicly traded corporation in the world, with sales of $220 billion last year, upward of 1.2 million employees, and more than 3,200 stores worldwide. There are currently 14 Wal-Marts in the Twin Cities metro area, with another store in Shakopee under construction. "You're gonna have a Wal-Mart every 15 minutes off the freeway," says Bernie Hesse, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 789, which is trying to unionize Wal-Mart employees. "That's their plan for saturation."

With the retailer's colossal growth, however, has come increased scrutiny. Wal-Mart has drawn fire for anti-union policies, poor working conditions, and the negative economic impact its stores have on locally owned businesses. A 1997 study by Iowa State University economics professor Ken Stone concluded that small towns in Iowa lost up to 47 percent of their retail trade after having to compete with Wal-Mart for ten years. A recent string of lawsuits in state and federal courts accuses the retailing giant of locking employees inside stores and forcing them to put in extra hours off the clock. According to the New York Times, such lawsuits have now been filed in 28 states by former or current employees.

As Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam's Club have proliferated across the nation, they've also left a string of big-box relics in their wake. According to the company's Web site, there are currently more than 400 Wal-Mart stores available to be leased or purchased, with Texas alone featuring 53 stores on the market. Stacy Mitchell, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and the author of Hometown Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores and Why It Matters, says that all big-box retailers are guilty of abandoning stores when they no longer suit the company's needs. "Target has empty stores, Best Buy, Loews, Circuit City--but Wal-Mart's kind of the king."

The phenomenon of vacated Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores is just taking hold in Minnesota. There are currently six available locations, ranging in size from 70,000 to 100,000 square feet. Perhaps most revealing is that one of the stores available for lease is in Inver Grove Heights. The 100,000-square-foot Sam's Club, on Mendota Road, will go out of business at the end of this month. "We've been hearing for three years that it's closing," laments Mayor Atkins.

Mitchell says that the end result of Wal-Mart's shoddy labor practices and scorched-earth growth is that towns like Inver Grove Heights are increasingly hostile to the retailer. She says that it wasn't long ago that the opening of a new Wal-Mart was greeted by high school marching bands and appearances by local politicians. "That doesn't happen anymore," Mitchell notes. "Wal-Mart is much more likely these days to be met by a pretty well-organized and angry group of citizens."

All that said, Inver Grove Heights officials insist that Wal-Mart's record as a corporate citizen, no matter how tarnished, will not play into next week's vote. Instead the decision will be based solely on the city's zoning ordinances and whether Wal-Mart fits within the municipality's overall plan for development. "You can look at almost any employer and find the bad parts," explains city council member Rosemary Piekarski Krech.

If Inver Grove Heights turns Wal-Mart away, Bill Klein may find some solace at Snyders Drug Store. This longtime fixture on Cahill Avenue in downtown Inver Grove Heights offers a veritable sock smorgasbord. For a mere $3.99 you can purchase three pairs of men's or women's cotton sports socks. Eight dollars will get you a half-dozen pairs of over-the-calf tube socks. There are gray thermal socks, baby booties, and ladies' trouser socks (with spandex) in black, gray, or blue. There are also T-shirts (three for $10) and flip-flops ($2).

Unfortunately for Klein, however, Snyders does not sell any all-season footwear. For that, he may just have to drive to Eagan.

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