Havre Daily News
A Wal-Mart spokesman on Tuesday responded to concerns voiced by some local business owners that the retail giant will drive merchants out of downtown Havre when it opens here.
Company spokesman Dan Fogleman defended the record of Wal-Mart, which has come under fire for low pay and benefits, discrimination against woman and hiring illegal aliens, as well as steamrolling over locally owned businesses in the communities where it opens.
Wal-Mart is the subject of a new documentary, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” - available for rent in Havre - that examines the stories of people and communities struggling under the weight of the behemoth retailer.
Creative Leisure owner Mike Hamilton today said his store carries the documentary, along with a PBS program about Wal-Mart that aired earlier this year.
Whether Wal-Mart will have a negative impact on Havre is not a question in Hamilton's mind. The only question is how bad it will be.
“I don't think it's a matter of (whether) businesses will close down in Havre, it's a question of how many and which ones,” Hamilton said. “And all for saving that mighty dollar.”
Wal-Mart on Friday purchased a 12-acre parcel just west of Kmart on U.S. Highway 2 and will build a 105,000-square-foot supercenter, employing about 275 workers and offering groceries, garden supplies, fuel, oil changes and tires.
Fogleman said the Havre store, which will likely open in early 2007, will be an “economic engine” that will draw shoppers into town and provide new jobs for local workers.
Fogleman, in a phone interview from the Wal-Mart home office in Bentonville, Ark., said some academic studies have shown that Wal-Mart stimulates job and wage growth in communities.
He said existing businesses will benefit from the traffic Wal-Mart will bring to Havre, and businesses that compete directly with the company will be able to hang on to customers by offering expanded product lines and a higher level of personal service, which are “difficult to deliver” for mass retailers.
“Wal-Mart is an economic engine,” Fogleman said. “We stimulate growth and that's good for all businesses in any area. It's a complete, one-stop shopping experience that works as a magnet to bring people into the community and benefits other existing businesses in the community.”
Wal-Mart has been criticized in the media and at a number of Web sites, including Walmartwatch.com. The site includes news articles covering a wide range of information: towns that prevent Wal-Mart from building and those that don't; accusations that the company has hired illegal aliens, closed stores that tried to unionize and discriminated against women; criticism over the cost of the company's employee health insurance; and daily updates about Wal-Mart activities.
Critics say that many employees can't afford the health insurance plan and are forced to rely on public assistance to provide health care for themselves and their families.
The retail chain has developed its own Web site - www.walmartfacts.com - to highlight contributions made to local communities, respond to criticisms and provide its stance on pending lawsuits, and provide information about the company.
There's even a pro-Wal-Mart movie: “Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy.”
Fogleman said the company has improved its health insurance plan to make it 40 percent to 60 percent cheaper in 2006. Next year Wal-Mart will offer as many as 18 different health plans, starting at $23 a month for single coverage. A parent with children will get health insurance for $37 and full family coverage will cost $65, he said. The plans do not vary in price with the number of children in a family, he added.
“We've made some inroads with some new plans to make health insurance affordable and accessible to as many people as possible,” Fogleman said.
Eric Berger, another company spokesman, said Monday that the average wage for hourly employees at Montana Wal-Mart stores is $9.59 per hour. The Havre Wal-Mart will employ between 250 and 300 people, with 60 percent working full time. All employees also will be offered life insurance, 401(k) plans and merchandise discounts, he said.
Berger said the company tries to select a local or regional contractor to head up the construction of its stores. A contractor has not yet been selected for the Havre Wal-Mart. The general contractor will work out a timeline for the store's construction, he said. Each store takes about 10 months to build.
The store could create as many as 200 construction jobs for local workers, he added.
At the grand opening, Wal-Mart will donate to local charitable organizations “as a sign of our continued commitment to the community,” Berger said.
The company will begin hiring store managers and employees before the store's opening, and those employees will have a say in the donations, he said.
“We allow our local store managers and associates to provide input as to the best charities to be involved in, so we can be responsive to the local needs of the community,” Berger said.
“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” was released on DVD on Nov. 15. A promotional Web site describes it as a “documentary that uncovers a retail giant's assault on families and American values.”
According to the Web site, the film tells the stories of families and communities struggling with the company: A mother who works for Wal-Mart turns to public assistance to provide health care for her two children; a family loses its business after a Wal-Mart opens nearby; and a mayor struggles to equip emergency service personnel after the company closes a store and opens another outside the city limits.
The video will be arriving at Gary & Leo's IGA soon. Tracy Job, manager of Gary & Leo's IGA, said he has ordered 15 copies.
Job has declined to comment about Wal-Mart's move to Havre since the sale was announced. In March, he said Gary & Leo's would do its best to compete with Wal-Mart, which has surpassed The Kroger Co. and Albertsons as the leading seller of groceries in the United States.
Hamilton said he has researched Wal-Mart and cannot find any documentation pointing to positive effects the company has on communities the size of Havre. Instead, research shows that communities where Wal-Mart builds end up with higher unemployment and more residents on public assistance, he said.
“It's definitely not good for any community,” he said. “There's documentation that proves that.”
Hamilton worries that Wal-Mart opening in Havre will force out some of the longtime businesses that make Havre unique.
“Overall, I just don't like the homogenization of retail,” he said. “If you look at Havre, we've got some great stores. That's what makes us a unique community.”
A town where the only places to shop are at Wal-Mart and other big box stores is “not a community. That's just a cookie-cutter stamp of another place to live,” Hamilton said.
According to www.walmartfacts.com, Wal-Mart, which owns seven supercenters, four discount stores and one Sam's Club in Montana, gave more than $760,000 to charitable causes in the state in 2004. The chain employs more than 4,500 people in the state, and purchased $42 million in merchandise and services from Montana suppliers in 2004, according to the Web site.