Small business owners and the people who work for them are the bedrock of our economy-in Harlem and throughout New York City. As elected officials, we must do everything we can to ensure that the people who get up and go to work every day in this city can survive and, hopefully, thrive at a time when we are still battling a recession.
That’s why my office has just issued a report about one of the biggest potential threats to our economic well-being in New York, most particularly in Harlem. In my report “Food for Thought: A Case Study of Walmart’s Impact on Harlem’s Healthy Food Retail Landscape,” we’ve shown the very real dangers that a mega-store at the corner of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue could pose to the small business owners and their thousands of employees who sell fresh fruit and produce to the people of this community.
The findings in our report are shocking: Within two years of a Walmart opening, we project that up to 66 small fresh food retailers within a one-mile radius would be forced to close. Jobs would be at risk and 202,000 square feet of fresh food retail space currently serving Harlem would be wiped out. This is unacceptable.
To project store closures, we relied on a landmark 2009 study that measured the impact of a similar store on Chicago’s West Side. In the Windy City, more than 40 percent of all competing businesses within a four-mile radius were forced to close after two years. We simply can’t afford to let that happen here.
Why did we look at this particular corner? There are a number of reasons. There has been talk in the community and in the media that Walmart, the world’s largest retailing operation, has its eyes on the large vacant parcel there. It is also one of the few lots in Manhattan large enough to accommodate a typical Walmart.
To be sure, a new Walmart would sell food to the neighborhood. But even if the company opened its largest scale store in Harlem-with 120,000 square feet for food sales-the damage to the community as a whole would be a net loss of 56,500-82,000 square feet of fresh food retailing. The threat to jobs and business in Harlem would be severe and the cost would be too high for New Yorkers who are fighting to stay afloat and support their families. They work hard and play by the rules. We can’t abandon them.
Opening a Walmart on 125th Street would cancel out many of the hard-won gains that have been made through New York’s FRESH and Healthy Bodega Initiative programs, which have been expanding access to healthy foods in underserved communities. The people of Harlem depend on these small grocers and bodegas to provide them with the healthy food they are often unable to get anywhere else.
I’m all for attracting businesses here to create jobs and boost our economy, but we must think long and hard before welcoming retail giants that could overwhelm and even destroy the economic fabric of vulnerable neighborhoods. Walmart poses a threat to New Yorkers who have been providing fresh food to the community for many years. Shouldn’t we as a city be supporting our independent food retailers? It’s food for thought.