‘Super’ Wal-Mart Maui may be just around the corner. For the last month, Wal-Mart shoppers in Kahului have been asked to sign their names and vital stats on a postcard-sized petition headed, “Support Your Right to Choose Where You Shop on Maui!” A Wal-Mart supercenter would add a grocery store to the current list of Wal-Mart goods and services.
But the good fight may be on in Maui, as it has been in other counties in Hawai`i. During a Hawai`i State Association of Counties (HSAC) meeting, Maui Council Chairman Riki Hokoma decided to join lawmakers from the rest of the state in introducing legislation that would prohibit “box-stores” larger than 75,000 square feet.
The average Wal-Mart supercenter is 185,000 square feet. And, for a supercenter already planned in Hilo, drawings call for a 200,000-square foot building, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin McCall.
McCall contends that the in-store petitions, which say, “Yes! I support free competition on Maui and oppose any law that would prevent Wal-Mart from opening a Supercenter on our island. You can use my name and count on me!” aren’t part of an active plan for expansion on Maui.
“We’re always pursuing opportunities to better benefit our customers,” he said. “There’s nothing really we can comment on in Maui.”
But in Hilo, plans have gone much further. And even if the Hawai`i County Council passes their resolution to ban supercenters, the bill won’t have teeth since the Wal-Mart expansion is planned on a 15.5-acre parcel of Hawaiian Home Lands, and approvals on those lands aren’t subject to county control.
In Kauai, Wal-Mart has already announced plans to expand the store and has leased the adjacent property. Public hearings will be held there in late April.
The Wal-Mart phenomenon has been cheered and jeered, but has continued to steamroll higher and higher profits. There are eight Wal-Marts and two Sam’s Clubs in Hawai`i, employing 4,238 people as of February 2007.
The company is the second-largest company in the world in terms of revenue—only ExxonMobil is bigger. And, Sam Walton’s widow and children together are the richest family in the nation, currently worth $80 billion dollars—more than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates combined—according to the Apr. 2, 2007 New Yorker article “Selling Wal-Mart.”
But growth hasn’t come without criticism. The company is reviled by unions, faces court challenges for its treatment of women, is known as a chronic low-payer and is charged with offering dismal benefits to its workers.
Then there’s the charge that Wal-Mart pushes local businesses out-of-business. John Min, executive assistant for Maui council chair Riki Hokama, noted that the local concern is based on the experiences in California communities with “Super” Wal-Marts, “where communities have been significantly impacted, especially smaller businesses.”
McCall said his company gives large amounts of money to the communities it’s a part of, saves people an average of 17 to 20 percent on grocery bills and that customers have requested supercenters in all of Hawai`i’s counties.
“One of the things Hawai`i is blessed with is some of the best fresh foods,” he said. “Something we would do is work with a lot of the local vendors: milk, fruits, vegetables. We’re excited about the chance.”
The corporate office reported that it spent over $169 million with local Hawai`i vendors in 2006 and worked with 484 separate island suppliers without any supercenters yet built. But ultimately, Wal-Mart’s plans come down to consumers.
Martha Rojas, 41, visiting Maui from Suwanee, Georgia, had nothing but good things to say about the company. “I’m a ‘super’ Wal-Mart and ‘super’ Target kind of girl,” she said. “For a busy mother, you can get your groceries, beach stuff, and whatever you need all in one place. That’s important.”
Reetha Bartunek, 48, of Paia agrees. “I would give them a try,” she said. “I haven’t gone in one [a supercenter] before, so I’d like to see what it was like. Now I shop at Safeway, Costco and sometimes Mana. But only at Mana for certain things. You know, I like regular mayonnaise. Get rid of that soy crap. It has no taste.”
If Council Chair Riki Hokama has anything to say about it, Wal-Mart’s possible expansion on Maui may become moot this June. That’s when the County Council Planning Committee decides if the “banning of the big-boxes” resolution deserves deep deliberation. MTW