HARLEM— Stirred by rumors that Walmart is considering opening a store on a vacant plot of land at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, a group of politicians, residents and business owners called Thursday for the retail juggernaut to stay out of Harlem and New York City.
Organized by Walmart Free NYC, about 75 Harlem United Against Walmart members said the retailer would destroy Harlem's small businesses. NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith's development company is already planning a $81 million project that includes a hotel and retail space at the corner lot.
"Walmart does not create jobs, it destroys jobs," said State Senator Bill Perkins. "Walmart does not pay a living wage — it pays slave wages."
A spokesman for Walmart said that while store does not have announced stores in the city, an "overwhelming majority" of New Yorkers support it.
"[E]very statistic — from independent polling and shopping behavior to petition signatures and Facebook likes — shows that the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers think Walmart can be part of the solution in the city for folks who want a job or need more affordable grocery options in their own neighborhood," said spokesman Steven Restivo.
ESmith Legacy Inc. has announced plans to build a Hyatt Place hotel on the corner lot along with a supermarket "at a good price point" or other national retailers, Brian Morris, president of ESmith Legacy Inc., told the 125th Street Business Improvement District in June.
Morris declined to name the retailers in question because he said negotiations were ongoing.
Smith's development company did not respond to requests for comment.
Walmart has made no secret of its desire to break into the New York City market. The retail giant is looking to expand into the country's dense urban markets to boost declining sales.
The retailer was said to be looking at locations in East Harlem but has faced criticism over its wages.
Walmart has also come under fire for trying to earn goodwill by making donations to area non-profits and a recent $1 million donation for citywide summer programs.
A Walmart at the Lenox Avenue and 125th Street lot would not be beyond the realm of possibility. The retailer also builds smaller, express-style stores that are about 15,000 square feet, or the size of a Duane Reade drugstore, according to reports.
"We should send a message loud and clear to Walmart that you are not welcome in New York City, because you are going to destroy small businesses," said City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights.
Area small business owners spoke out strongly against any proposed plan.
"I used to have five businesses in Harlem; now I'm down to one," said Solomon Cromwell, who used to own a business where the empty lot at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue stands. "We don't need a Walmart — we need jobs that we can create to help our people."
Harlem, including 125th Street, is no stranger to big-box retailers and national chains such as Staples, Marshalls and Old Navy. A Target and Costco have opened in the East River Plaza mall in East Harlem over the past two years.
Regardless, Perkins said Walmart is different.
"Walmart is more of a catalyst in terms of the type of change that would take place," he said. "Because 125th Street already has corporate stores doesn't mean we should invite more poison into our economic community."