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City bailed on west Louisville Wal-Mart forum, says activist Haven Harrington

by David Serchuk

Wal-Mart: Is the city cutting communities out of the conversation?

The June 13 open forum at Louisville’s West Chestnut Baptist Church was supposed to be an opportunity for Louisville residents to not only voice their thoughts about the proposed West End Wal-Mart, but also share them with city representatives. But Metro Government reps backed out on the day of the forum, says Haven Harrington, president of the Concerned Association of Russell Residents (CARR).

The Russell neighborhood borders where the proposed Wal-Mart would go at 18th Street and Broadway.

The forum had from 75-100 attendees, from all parts of the city, Harrington says. Though the Wal-Mart is proposed for west Louisville, people came from as far as Floyd’s Fork, and all parts of Jefferson County.

Chairs were reserved for representatives from Wal-Mart, and the office of Ted Smith, chief of Economic Growth and Innovation for Louisville Metro Government. Initially, Harrington says he was told Smith couldn’t attend because he was out-of-town, but was assured a representative from his office would be there.

“That Friday at 2 p.m., the day of the forum, they said no one could come because they can’t discuss open cases,” he says.

But Metro Government disputes that account.

“That’s not how it happened,” says Rebecca Fleischaker, assistant director for Economic Development in Louisville. “The city could not be present because it’s a pending case before a legal body,” she says. “Our comments will come through the planning process.” She also disputes the claim that Economic Development promised any of its members would attend. Rather, she says, Economic Development said it would try to see if one of its members could attend, and no one was able to.

There was at least one public official represented. A legislative aid for Councilman David W. Tandy, D-4, attended the forum.

All this is part of an ongoing story for Harrington, who says he’s pursued multiple meetings with city economic development officials to discuss the Wal-Mart. “We’re not fighting the Wal-Mart, we just want to talk about its design,” he says.

Specifically, he and, by extension CARR, believe an urban Wal-Mart, flush to the curb of the street, would be a much better fit for the West End than the typical suburban design, which has stores surrounded by a massive moat of parking.

He says CARR has tried to have a voice in the conversation at every step of the process, but has been rebuffed time and again. “We currently haven’t been contacted by any organization in the city,” he wrote in an email. “We are currently reaching out to various city departments (such as Econ Dev) to see if we can schedule a meeting to get the city’s thoughts on an urban Wal-Mart. To date, the city hasn’t been too cooperative in discussing the west Louisville Wal-Mart.”

This stands in contrast to the actions other cities have taken, in order to secure Wal-Marts that sit better with urban environments. In Washington, D.C., for example, two sleek, decidedly urban Wal-Marts have been built. In Chicago, Wal-Mart built a 76,000 square-foot “ecogarden” green roof atop its building.

Harrington adds that in Washington, D.C. the public was fairly hostile to the idea of Wal-Mart. To appease D.C. residents, Wal-Mart also promised to pay an hourly wage $1 higher than what could be found at other big-box retailers.

Yet, in Louisville, he claims residents didn’t have any opportunity to give this kind of input. He says Mayor Greg Fischer’s office told him there would be time for community members to give feedback once the ink is dry on the deal. So far, he says, this hasn’t happened either.

I asked, has there been any input from his organization, and the larger community, into the Wal-Mart’s design? “I have to be honest with you, so far there’s been none,” he says.

What frustrates Harrington is he feels Wal-Mart is not in a position to simply make demands upon the city and its residents. They’ve pretty much saturated their suburban and rural markets, and have to expand into urban areas to keep growing. At the same time, west Louisville residents overwhelmingly want Wal-Mart to come, both for what it sells, and its jobs. “I had thought it was a win-win.”

Terrell Holder, secretary on the board of Louisville’s Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation, a nonprofit, says it is possible a suburban-style Wal-Mart could happen. He added, however, that it doesn’t have to be this way. “Wal-Mart is accommodating to communities that engage with them. They do what they need to do.”

He adds Wal-Mart isn’t just a West End issue, rather it should hold meaning for the entire city. “What happens in the West End concerns the East End,” he says. “A polarized city is not one that’s going to prosper.”

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