By Matt Chaban
The press release came in even before The Observer had seen the initial report that prompted it.
“We have not had any talks with Walmart about a location at Willets Point and we have absolutely no intention of discussing this site with them,” the email statement read.
Who knew! And yet it made perfect sense, as the company has been looking for any opening imaginable in the city.
The Daily News had heard from two Queens pols that had been contacted by Walmart about potentially supporting one of the big box retailer’s outlets at the recently announced Mets Mega Mall.
“They were looking at Willets Point as a possibility for a new site in New York,” said one elected official, who asked not to be named, but said he is opposed to the idea.
Another elected official, who also did not want to be named, said the company had been courting support.
Nothing new here. Walmart has been desperate to open up an outpost in the five boroughs since its efforts in 2006 were thwarted at the City Council, and starting two years ago, the big box boogeyman seriously began to ramp up those efforts, most notably trying to plant itself at the Related Company’s Gateway Center development in East New York, where the company could build as-of-right.
But following gaffes here and elsewhere and the notorious bribery incident in Mexico, the efforts have grown more difficult.
Now, even Walmart’s staunchest backers seem to want nothing to do with the company. For starters, Related, along with their Willets partners the Wilpons, have disavowed any involvement with the company in building a Queens outpost. The rest of their unexpected statement reads:
There have been and will be no negotiations, they are simply not a part of our plan to build an enclosed retail and entertainment destination at Willets Point, that will bring much needed jobs and economic activity to the area and lead to the development of a new neighborhood.
Those are pretty emphatic words, but they also make a good bit of sense. The rejiggered project has already drawn criticism from a number of corners, does it really need more?
What is also surprising is that the City’s Economic Development Corporation, the lead agency behind the project, and the mayor’s pro-business attack dog, has distanced itself from Walmart at Willets, as well. An EDC spokesman told Gothamist, “These reports are absolutely without merit. There have been no discussions between the developer and WalMart.”
This is in stark contrast to the mayor’s previous statements about the company, when hizzoner strongly endorsed Walmart coming here.
He still clearly holds these views even as his underlings at EDC deflect them, at least in one corner of the city. On his weekly radio show today, Mayor Bloomberg reiterated Walmart’s rights to open in the five boroughs: “As long as they don’t break any laws, we should not, government, the City Council included, should not be out there criticizing because all that says is to other companies that might want to locate here, you know, ‘What do I need that aggravation for? Who knows if they turn on me?’”
The mayor went on to tick off the various causes Walmart supports, from responsible gun ownership to the United Negro College Fund. He also pointed out that numerous New Yorkers cross city lines to shop at Walmart stores in Nassau County and New Jersey—a point echoed by a Walmart spokesman in an email to The Observer: “New Yorkers went out of their way to spend more than $215 million at Walmart in 2011.”
Still, if the rumors of Walmart’s “stealth” entreaties to Queens pols for political backing is true, it demonstrates just how desperate the firm’s situation has grown.
When the company turned up again two years ago, The Observer predicted it would attempt the same divide and conquer tactics it used to open a store in Chicago not long ago. But almost the entire political class, with the exception of the mayor, has vocally opposed Walmart. This includes every would-be mayoral candidate. It is now or never for the company, and even that may not be enough. That bouncing smiley face may never alight on our fair city.