Let Wal-Mart In

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Opposing Wal-Mart seems to be in vogue these days. Mayor Curtatone of Somerville is doing it, so is Mayor Menino.

Menino, along with many community leaders, is opposing the expansion of Wal-Mart into Dudley Square. Their opposition is built on two objections – that Wal-Mart will damage the existing retail infrastructure in Dudley Square and that Wal-Mart is bad corporate citizen.

But it’s a short-sighted attempt by government actors to tilt the playing field in favor of certain businesses.

For one, the mega-marts are already here. The city has one – the Target in the South Bay Shopping Center (and Target’s masterful branding as the ‘good citizen’ compared to Wal-Mart is a whole separate story).

But if you look at surrounding communities, you’ll see a ring of 11 stores. Somerville hosts K-Mart and Target. Quincy has BJs and..gasp… Wal-Mart. Revere offers BJs and Target. Dedham has BJs and Costco. Everett hosts Costco and Target. Watertown has a Target as well.

Move one community out from Boston and four more mega-stores are there – Saugus with K-Mart and Target; Waltham and Medford with BJs. Expand the category a bit and you’ll find even more – like Market Basket in Somerville and Chelsea, for example.

These stores are accessible for many Boston residents and I assure you they are shopping there. For others, Amazon (with its Prime two-day shipping membership) is providing an (tax-free) alternative to local merchants.

I’m instinctively skeptical when anyone with political power tries to limit my options, particularly using extra-legal means. Every leader declares their community ‘open for business’, but evaluating business siting decisions on a case-by-case basis is the exact opposite of this. Either Wal-Mart has a legal right to open in appropriately zoned areas or it doesn’t.

Limiting the choices of consumers has a grim history in this state – remember when CVS Minute Clinics were going to destabilize our health care system? Apparently their 26 locations in eastern Massachusetts (but not in Boston) providing convenient, accessible care have failed to end health care as we know it.

Or granting a liquor license to the proposed Wegman’s in Westwood stopped legislative business for weeks? That dispute grew out of another restrictive practice – only allowing grocery chains to hold three beer and wine licenses (as that fourth license is so clearly the tipping point to disaster).

Most Boston residents are already using these mega-stores for their shopping. And those who can’t access them would surely benefit from more ready access.

Doesn’t it make sense for Boston to reap some of the benefits, in terms of employment, property tax revenues and lower cost goods, rather than our neighbors?

Crossposted in Boston Daily.