Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wal-Mart Learns Lesson | Casey's Last Word

Wal-Mart this week demonstrated that it has learned something San Antonio developers learned 30 years ago.

That’s about the time that the rise of neighborhood associations as a political force began.

Such associations generally are sensitive to what they see as incursions on their neighborhoods – whether the incursions be low-income housing or big-box developers. Or just about anything other than a park.

About that time City Council members learned that it was politically hazardous to be seen as tools of developers or their lobbyists. This was especially true if the politicians received substantial campaign contributions from those very developers and their lobbyists, as many did.

So council members took on the role of mediators between developers and neighborhood leaders. They would put both sides through a process that often produced more acceptable designs, sound-reducing barricades, traffic control and other amenities.

North Side neighbors of the proposed Wal-Mart on 42 acres at Blanco Road and Wurzbach Parkway – right next to Hardberger Park and the North Castle Hills subdivision – are busy judging for themselves how well Councilwoman Elise Chan did in her role as mediator. The reaction Tuesday evening when she presented the concessions she had won from Wal-Mart indicated more negotiations may be in order.

Chan, with the help of her fellow council members, forced the current negotiations with a bit of mau-mauing last February, when she and her colleagues threatened to down-zone the property so that the Wal-Mart could not be built.

It was clear from the beginning that Chan was just trying to gain more ammunition in negotiations that had stalled with Wal-Mart. For one thing, it would require at least nine members of the council to down-zone the property in the face of vigorous opposition from the still-powerful real estate development industry.

For another, even if that super-majority was achieved, there is little reason to think that the Texas Supreme Court would let the decision stand. That body recently showed itself to be so tilted toward individual property rights as opposed to community concerns that they overturned decades of precedent and a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that made all of Texas beaches public property.

But retailers must be sensitive to public perception, and to engage in a protracted legal battle to run roughshod over neighborhood concerns would hardly enhance Wal-Mart’s image.

In the wake of the massively-documented article in last Sunday’s New York Times exposing Wal-Mart for using systematic large-scale bribery to fuel the company’s aggressive expansion in Mexico, Wal-Mart should be especially sensitive to public perception these days.

If you haven’t read this extraordinary article on how Wal-Mart’s Mexico subsidiary became Mexico’s largest private employer in just a few years by allegedly paying more than $24 million in bribes, and how the higher-ups in Bentonville allegedly squelched an internal investigation, I urge you to do so. You’ll find a link to it at

Neighborhood associations are part of the political fabric that makes such corruption more difficult in the United States. History offers plenty of evidence that U.S. politicians are not inherently more virtuous than Mexican politicians. But when voters here organize, they can compete with the power of money – at least on the local level.

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