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Wal-Mart: Where’s the public forum?

A brief glance at Letters to the Editor published in The SUN over the past few weeks makes it obvious that the announcement of building a 93,000-square-foot Wal-Mart in Pagosa Springs is a controversial, if not emotional, issue.

In fact, last week’s meeting of the Pagosa Springs Town Council (see related article), as well as the Jan. 3 council meeting (when Wal-Mart representative Josh Phair presented his company’s intentions), arguably attracted some of the largest crowds to attend council meetings.

Given the high level of interest in the future presence of a big box store in town, it might seem that an open house, presenting Wal-Mart’s intentions for development and scheduled for Feb. 16, from 4:30-6:30 p.m. in the Ross Aragon Community Center, would be a welcome opportunity for local residents to air their opinions.

However, it is the format of an open house that has left some area residents feeling as though the public process has been sidestepped and that the current format chosen by the town for public input is more an opportunity for Wal-Mart representatives to shine a positive light on their proposed development.

“At the Town Council meeting,” said local resident Muriel Eason, “where Josh Phair from Wal-Mart announced to council that they intend to build a store here, the mayor said no public comment would be allowed at the time. Instead, a separate meeting would be set up for a public forum.”

Eason continued, “The definition of ‘public forum’ is ‘A meeting or assembly for the open discussion of subjects of public interest.’ How is a sales pitch from Wal-Mart and submitting comment cards a public forum? Governing is not something done to the people, but rather for the people, so the people need a voice. The framers of the Constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and expression to the citizens, so why has Town Council chosen to restrict it on this passionate issue?”

In fact, Town Planner James Dickhoff indicated that an open house-style meeting was the preferred format of Wal-Mart representatives.

Dickhoff said in an interview with SUN staff Monday that the proposed open house is, “A format that Wal-Mart has used in the past in other communities.”

When asked how the idea for an open house format had been arrived at, Dickhoff replied, “Through conversations with the developers, with David Mitchem, the mayor and Josh Phair.”

Dickhoff added that he had questioned about five area residents who had contacted town staff following the Jan. 3 announcement inquiring about the timeline of a promised public forum and asking those callers if they would be receptive to an open house presentation.

Dickhoff added that the callers, “Were not necessarily business owners.”

However, Dickhoff said those callers liked that an open house would not require attendees to sit through an entire meeting to be heard, but rather, “They can flow through, as they please, and leave comments with Wal-Mart representatives or with town staff.”

Dickhoff added that he had been approached by supporters of Wal-Mart who had said they were afraid to speak up during a public forum-style meeting, “Due to the high level of emotion surrounding the issue.”

Instead of a meeting chair recognizing each individual speaker to address the room, Dickhoff said that the open house will feature several information booths manned by Wal-Mart representatives. Area residents will have the opportunity to visit the various booths and present comments to representatives.

“They can address one topic at a particular station,” Dickhoff said. “Full details of what each station offers are still being hammered out”

Aside from addressing Wal-Mart representatives manning the booths, Dickhoff said that attendees of the open house will have access to “comment cards” to fill out.

At Thursday’s meeting, Dickhoff announced that those comments would be read by council members, but did not say if those comments would be made public.

That format was confirmed yesterday during a phone interview with Phair. Saying that booths would be set up throughout the community center, largely dealing with construction and design aspects of the proposed project (including civil engineering, site development, landscape architecture, traffic/parking and improvements to U.S. 160), Phair added “I’ll be there for any questions that might come up about store operations or hiring, should they come up.

“I’m not sure exactly what information we’ll have there,” Phair conceded, saying that final determination rests with the town.

Nonetheless, the open house format for soliciting public comment seems to violate the spirit of promises made at the Jan. 3 council meeting.

“We will not entertain public comment,” Aragon told a packed room during the Jan. 3 council meeting. “We will instead utilize a diplomatic option establishing civil organization and protocol in a public forum setting at the community center.”

“We do and will commit to public discussions,” Phair told the audience during his Jan. 3 announcement. “We do see this just simply as the beginning of a long dialog with the Town of Pagosa Springs and the public at large, public discussions.”

How the open house format will effectively solicit public comment remains to be seen.

Most likely, that meeting will not only present development plans, but will also serve to repeat claims Phair made on Jan. 3 regarding jobs, wages and benefits.

In fact, if Wal-Mart provides 175 jobs in Pagosa Springs (Phair said at the Jan. 3 meeting that the store would create between 175-200 jobs), that would constitute almost 3 percent of the county’s Civilian Labor Force for December 2012 (see related article). Furthermore, those 175 jobs (assuming full-time employment status) would have lowered December’s 9.5 percent unemployment rate for the county to 6.6 percent during that month.

Considering Phair has indicated that a number of local Wal-Mart employees would be part-time hires, the unemployment rate would not be as low as 6.6 percent.

Despite the obvious impact to the county’s employment situation, the issue of what kind of jobs will most likely come up in conversation.

At the Jan. 3 meeting, Phair stated that average wages for Colorado employees amounted to $13.08 per hour. However, “average” indicates little since that figure is calculated from wages of the highest-paid employee, along with the lowest-paid employees. The median wage — the middle value of all wages paid — would be a more useful indication of what area workers can expect to make at Wal-Mart (median wage is used far more frequently than average wage by economists), since the amount of highest wages does little to skew the middle value.

Furthermore, numerous claims by Wal-Mart regarding average wage tends to land at around the $13.08 mark, across the U.S.

When asked about median wages, Phair said, “It’s not something we would have and if we did, I’m not sure we would release that,” citing proprietary information and its impact on competition.

However, according to market research analysts IBISWorld, a Wal-Mart associate makes $8.81 an hour, on average. Two years ago, research by consumer group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy found that Wal-Mart employees earn 20 percent less than the average U.S. retail worker, and some $10,000 less than what the average two-person family requires to meet its basic needs.

Likewise, while Phair claimed on Jan. 3 that, “Wal-Mart offers the most generous benefit package in the big box retail industry,” that claim has been contradicted by recent research that shows that, while full-time employees are eligible for benefits, that health insurance package is so expensive (employees pay 35 percent — almost double the national average) that less than half of those employees opt to buy in.

With fewer than half of its employees enrolled in its health insurance plan, compared with 67 percent enrollment for the average large employer, Phair’s claims regarding the company’s health benefits seem largely inflated.

When pressed on what percentage of full-time Wal-Mart employees were insured, Phair could not provide an exact number but said, “Over the last five years, our numbers of insured employees has increased.”

When asked what percentage of Wal-Mart employees work full time, Phair responded, “It’s typically well over half. For this facility, more than half,” but added, “that hasn’t been determined yet.”

Last October, Wal-Mart announced that future part-time employees (who work less than 24 hours a week on average) will no longer qualify for any of the company’s health insurance plans. During that same announcement, Wal-Mart representatives stated that new employees who average 24 to 33 hours a week would still be able to cover their children, but would no longer be able to include a spouse as part of their health care plan.

At that time, Wal-Mart would not release information regarding the percentage of employees working 24 hours a week or less. The company also declined to say what percentage of its employees were covered under the company’s health care plan, despite claiming in 2009 that 52 percent of its employees obtained health coverage through it.

Furthermore, Wal-Mart raised premiums on some plans by as much as 40 percent this year. Although Wal-Mart generally offers premiums lower than other large employers, those savings are offset by high deductibles that sometimes exceed 20 percent of a worker’s annual pay.

Finally, a question certain to be asked on Feb. 16 is why Wal-Mart would want to locate a store in Pagosa Springs when the Durango Supercenter has served the area for so many years and is just about an hour’s drive for most Archuleta County residents.

Some critics claim that locating stores closely together is due to the chain’s market saturation strategy, in which stores placed closely together essentially become their own competition. Critics claim that, once competition from local retailers is wiped out, the company is free to thin out their stores.

In fact, Wal-Mart has almost 400 empty stores on the market today.

Most likely, February’s open house will raise more questions than answers that Wal-Mart representatives are willing to provide. However, one question that the town seems unwilling to answer is, “What happened to the public forum that was promised?”

jim@pagosasun.com

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