Our view: Wal-Mart watch

There's a reason that controversy follows Wal-Mart to every town where it wants to open a new store.

The world's largest retailer can alter economies, boost sales tax revenue and change a town's business landscape. And that's just on a local level.

Wal-Mart has tremendous buying power, and the way it runs its business has a global effect. If American suppliers can't provide the goods that Wal-Mart wants to sell in its stores at the price that Wal-Marts wants, it will find a cheaper supplier overseas, creating a ripple effect through the manufacturing sector that impacts jobs and international trade.

At least that's what the critics contend. And there are a lot of them, especially in the labor movement. Wal-Mart's reputation for crushing competitors at the expense of American workers has spawned a cottage industry of professional Wal-Mart detractors who warn communities what can happen when Wal-Mart comes to town.

We don't even know for sure yet whether Wal-Mart is coming to Craig. But we think it's important for our community to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls.

Our elected officials haven't taken a solid position -- not publicly anyway -- but there is a hint of caution in the wind. Chief among the concerns is what effect a local Wal-Mart would have on existing businesses. Because we are surrounded by towns that already have Wal-Marts (Steamboat Springs, Vernal and Rifle have stores), we wouldn't be drawing customers from out of town to shop here. Instead, Wal-Mart would compete with local businesses for Craig's shoppers.

Steamboat Springs had to contend with this issue several years ago when its Wal-Mart opened, and they've since taken the whole concept of big-box retailers and put it under a public microscope.

We think Craig will have to undergo its own self-examination to determine what kind of community we want to be and whether Wal-Mart fits within our vision of the future.

Wal-Mart's success has hinged on its ability to offer a good selection and good prices. That's enough for most shoppers. Why go anywhere else? The short answer is that there's a hidden price tag that most consumers can't see or won't look for.

If everyone shopped at Wal-Mart, what would happen to the other businesses in town and the people they employ? Yes, Wal-Mart will create jobs, but will those jobs supplant better jobs with better pay and benefits as other stores fold? Could we be swapping union jobs that pay well for nonunion Wal-Mart wages that average below $10 an hour?

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee released a 22-page report (prepared by Democrats) detailing how nonunionized Wal-Mart allegedly imposes financial burdens on local governments. According to the report, a certain number of Wal-Mart workers must turn to the government for welfare services, including subsidized health care.

Wal-Mart, of course, disputes the report. But as Wal-Mart's pay and benefits have increasingly come under fire, the company has initiated a public relations campaign to improve its image.

Last week, the company bought full-page ads in more than 100 newspapers around the nation to highlight its message that it provides opportunity for advancement and that its stores provide mainly full-time jobs with a broad benefits package.

The AFL-CIO, a huge critic of Wal-Mart, cites studies that show Wal-Mart employees pay steep premiums for the company's health plan and many can't afford the coverage.

Critics charge that the company's wage plan and health care benefits allow the chain to charge low prices that force competitors to cut pay and benefits in order to remain competitive.

We've seen some evidence of that locally with the ongoing negotiations between unionized grocery workers and supermarket chains. The chains are seeking some concessions to save money on health care costs and have cited Wal-Mart's effect as a reason.

If Wal-Mart set up shop here, would it spell doom for Safeway and Kmart? And is losing those stores worth the cheaper prices that Wal-Mart would bring?

If stores do fold, we'll have more vacant buildings around town. But local real estate agents don't seem overly concerned. Commercial real estate tends to be the first thing to dry up in a bust and the last thing to rebound during a boom. Wal-Mart could signal the beginning of a boom as more businesses spring up to take advantage of Wal-Mart's traffic. Realtors seem confident that the benefits of having a Wal-Mart could minimize the negative effect of having shuttered buildings become part of the local scenery.

We already lose about 21 percent of our small work force pool to Steamboat employers. We fear that cutting high-paying jobs and offering lower-paying jobs will only increase the loss of manpower. That's a problem, because many of the people who commute to Steamboat eat and shop there as matter of convenience. That's fewer dollars circulating locally.

There are many issues to consider and hopefully we'll have the time and the inclination as a community to explore them before we get too excited about Wal-Mart or any other major retailer coming to town.

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