More than 100 people rallied on the steps of city hall Monday to protest the purported construction of a Walmart along Springfield Avenue, echoing charges heard elsewhere that the retail giant does not provide a decent living for its employees and has a ruinous effect on local economies.
Company spokespeople, however, while saying there are no “announced plans” to build its first store in Newark, also added that the world’s largest retailer would be a good fit for the city and that its wages are in line with or exceed those at other major store chains.
The rally was held shortly before a meeting of the city planning board, whose agenda included a hearing on a development proposal for a vacant lot at Springfield Avenue and Jones Street submited by Tucker Development Corp., which has offices in Chicago and New Jersey. That application calls for a shopping center with tens of thousands of square feet of retail space.
Tucker, however, asked the planning board to delay the hearing by one week, to Dec. 10. The planning board granted the request as protesters who had wandered into city hall to hear the proceedings looked on.
Opponents said Tucker’s involvement clearly indicates that Walmart is eyeing the site. Tucker has developed properties for other store locations. Alex Gomez, of Working Families United for New Jersey, which organized Monday’s rally, said the artist’s rendering of the proposal -- known officially as Springfield Avenue Marketplace -- even resembles a Walmart, with its signature “big box” design.
Speaking before the crowd assembled on city hall steps, Charles Hall, chair of the organization, accused Walmart of trying to get approval for a Newark store by operating “under the radar.”
“We got together with a coalition of people to say we don’t want Walmart here. I will tell you Walmart is no friend to communities....we want to speak out to our community when they try to pull the wool over our eyes,” Hall said to an audience that included members of organized labor, the NAACP and other activist groups.
But a company spokesman, William Wertz, denied any knowledge of plans for the site.
“I know we’re in contact with city officials for things like Sandy relief, but I’m not aware of any discussion pertaining to this project,” he said.
Speakers Monday accused the retailer of an array of sins. Hall cited studies showing the company kills three jobs for every two jobs it creates. Other speakers said that Walmart pays many workers a wage of just $8 an hour, or about $15,000 a year, less than half the median income for a family of four in Newark. Msgr. John Gilchrist, a Catholic priest and labor activist, said the company destroys mom-and-pop businesses and would turn the city’s downtown into a ghost town.
“What’s happening tonight is very important. It’s not just about organizing Walmart, it’s about protecting the little people,” he said.
In a prepared statement and in response to questions, Wertz, the Walmart spokesman, countered those claims, stating the average hourly full-time wage for a Walmart employee in New Jersey is $12.78 and that many new employees choose to make a career at the company, with 75 percent of store management starting out as hourly associates.
Wertz also said one study cited by Hall, showing that Walmart proved to be a job-killer in Chicago, was “flawed.”
Walmart, which has locations in nearby Union and Kearny, is also already popular with Newark shoppers, according to company data. Newarkers spent $45 million at Walmart stores last year.
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