After several years of political and legal battles, a brand-new Wal-Mart SuperCenter opened at 7:30 this morning 10 miles up the road in Potsdam, NY. For those keeping track, that's 400 new jobs and lower prices and more selection for one of the poorer counties in NY state. When I drive by the new store later today (four times actually), I will feel genuine pride to have been a bit player in the fight to improve the lives of my fellow North Country residents. I was part of a community forum in 2004 and continued the good fight on a faculty panel on campus after a screening of the anti-Wal-Mart film "The High Cost of Low Prices." You can find my remarks at that panel here.
I've made the arguments for Wal-Mart on this blog and elsewhere before, but I want to add two additional pieces of evidence in its favor based on what's happened here in the Canton/Potsdam area:
1. Even before the new store opened, the strip of Route 11 it sits on has seen a new strip mall, bringing a couple of dozen new jobs, and talk about out-parcels around the new site is buzzing. Potsdam is also reported to be close to a new Hampton Inn, and is breaking ground on a new Lowe's, both of which likely believe Wal-Mart makes Potsdam a better location. There's another couple hundred jobs down the road.
2. For those who say that Wal-Mart lowers the quality of jobs in the areas it enters, consider this: my 16 year-old son will be looking for a part-time job this fall. My wife was chatting with a couple of local businesswomen, all of whom said the same thing: it's a great time to find a part-time job in the smaller retail stores here in Canton because a large number of part-time retail folks have left those stores to take better paying, higher benefit jobs at Wal-Mart! (Of course, it's possible that folks are abandoning what they perceive to be sinking ships, but that's doubtful, given that it's still 10 miles to Potsdam and having a drugstore, for example, here in town is VERY convenient.)
In any case, so much for the myth that working at Wal-Mart sucks. Yeah, it sucks in comparison to the pay and working conditions of your average, say, Sociology professor. But compared to the real world jobs occupied by a decent number of North Country residents, who many of my faculty colleagues claim to be so concerned about, Wal-Mart is a big step up.
As I said in my comments on the film:
Let me also suggest that my colleagues and students here at SLU who find Wal-Mart to be so troublesome may well be trapped in the very same “SLU Bubble” of complacency and elitism that they imagine themselves to be breaking out of....It's easy for us as the well-off minority to worry about protecting that “small-town” feel, or being concerned with every little bit of environmental impact or the aesthetics of big-box retailers (or just how much they offer in benefits). But to allow the concerns that wealth can afford to overshadow the real basic needs of the rest of our community is to live in a bubble, and it comes across to our fellow citizens as the worst sort of elitism.
My challenge to you tonight is to break out of the bubble. Do something really radical and ask real people in real small town communities in St. Lawrence county or elsewhere in North America, or even in poor urban areas, what they think of Wal-Mart. And then do something even more radical: examine your own biases and prejudices and search for some more facts. You might find that although Wal-Mart is not a paragon of perfection and virtue, it, without ever necessarily intending to do so, has made a difference, a big positive difference, in the lives of lots of folks who can use all the positives they can get.
Thanks to all in the area who devoted their time and resources to fighting the good fight. And for those who opposed it, I'm sure I'll be seeing you at the new SuperCenter, loading up on the better selection of food and buying cheaper supplies for your senior seminar on the evils of capitalism and hypocrisy of capitalists.