By Jill Colvin
CITY HALL — A Walmart opening in New York City would kill jobs, devastate neighborhoods and close mom and pop shops, opponents to the retail giant argued at a packed City Council hearing Thursday afternoon.
But Walmart wasn't there to listen.
The country's largest retailer made good on its promise to boycott the "When Walmart Comes to Town: The Effect on Small Businesses and Communities" hearing, called in response to ramped-up efforts by the retail giant to open a store in New York.
More than 300 small business owners, labor advocates and local leaders rallied on City Hall's steps ahead of the hearing to voice their opposition to the plan, arguing that Walmart must stay out.
"There is more to life than cheap underwear," said Bruce Perth, president of UFCW Local 1500, as he stood in front of the crowd, which chanted "No Walmart!" and waved colorful signs blasting the company and its labor practices.
Walmart defended its business practices and its decision not to testify in front of the Council, arguing that the scrutiny of their yet-to-be-finalized plan amounted to discrimination against the chain.
"With most New Yorkers supporting Walmart, should we be spending valuable New York City resources to tell people where they can shop and work?" asked Steven Restivo, the director of community affairs at Walmart, in statement, citing a survey commissioned by the retailer that found that more than 70 percent of those polled support Walmart's opening in the city.
The survey is part of a PR campaign, complete with a flashy website, that makes the case that a New York store would save customers money by slicing their grocery bills by a third, spurring growth and creating new jobs.
But opponents, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, argued that Walmart is a very different beast from its other big-brand competitors and poses a unique threat to small businesses.
"We are very clear that Walmart as it presently does business...is not a company that is good for New York City," she said at the rally, citing a study that found that when the retail giant opened in Chicago, one quarter of neighboring businesses closed within a year.
Quinn also criticized the company for failing to testify in front of the Council.
"If what they have to offer New York is so great, why are they afraid to answer my questions about it?" she asked.
But Restivo defended the company's absence, saying the "decision to not attend today's special interest rally has nothing to do with our willingness to answer questions — we do that every day."
In testimony in front of the council, small business owners near current Walmart stores testified against the giant.
Stacey Mitchell, a researcher at New Rules Project, an advocacy organization, warned that Walmart's model is built on blanketing a region — and said that New York is next on the company's list.
"[Walmart] is staging a transformation of the city’s retail market," Mitchell said, arguing that the brand would drastically alter the city’s neighborhoods, hurt local businesses and kill jobs.
Before the hearing, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was blunt in his message to Walmart: "It’s not going to happen," he said.
"Spending tens of millions of dollars gets you elected mayor, but it's not going to get you into New York City," he said, taking a jab at the mayor as he panned Walmart.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has voiced his support for Walmart's opening, arguing that the city is losing business to Walmart locations out of state and that the city cannot regulate what stores open where.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who represent Inwood and Washington Heights, said that even if the company is currently eyeing a site in Central Brooklyn, as reports suggest, Manhattan residents should be concerned.
"First it will be East New York, then it will be Washington Heights," he said.
Locations in East New York, Brooklyn, Chelsea, Lower Manhattan and the Upper East and West Sides have all been floated as contenders for the new store.