Possible Walmart competes with Downtown employment

To work at the Grill, the only requirement is a black T-shirt.

You may sport a tattoo. You may sport several tattoos. You may wear piercings, long hair, a beard or a mustache.

“What makes working here so cool is that you can be an individual,” Matt Hull, manager at the Grill, said.

But Hull fears if a “faceless chain” moves in across the street, his 15 or so employees and others like them working in small businesses downtown will become just another one of 300.

Developer Selig Enterprises said the Armstrong & Dobbs property on Oconee Street would include a large retailer, 220 apartments, 15 to 20 retail stores, a parking deck — and 300 jobs.

And it is these jobs that have garnered support for the new retail center, though many critics say 300 jobs at minimum wage may not be enough.

The Oconee Street space is set to cover 94,000 feet, and many say the large retailer taking up most of that space would be Walmart — a chain store notorious for cutting prices but also cutting wages.

Jesee Tron, media relations specialist at International Council of Shopping Centers, said a 94,000-square foot space would struggle to fit a Walmart.

“It would be nothing for Walmart to occupy 94,000 feet by themselves,” he said.

Tron said Walmarts can fit up to 140,000 square feet.

And according to the retailer’s website, they could be bigger.

The typical supercenter is about 185,000 square feet, according to Walmart’s website. It employs about 350 people and provides groceries along with specialty shops such as a vision center and brand-name restaurants.

Another smaller option for the property could be a neighborhood market, which sells groceries, pharmaceuticals and general merchandise, according to the website.

This option is smaller at 42,000 square feet, but only about 95 employees hired.

Still, according to Walmart’s website, Georgia does not have any of these neighborhood markets in any part of the state.

In fact, the most popular type of Walmart in Georgia is a supercenter with 136 in Georgia already.

A far second is a discount store. Georgia has four of them.

Walmart discount stores are typically 108,000 square feet and employ about 225 associates. They sell family apparel, automotive products, hardware and sporting goods.

Groceries are not part of this list, according to the website.

By comparison, Athens Hardware Company on North Thomas Street, a store that could be in direct competition with Walmart, employs 12 people total.

Tron suggested the retailer downtown could be a Walmart Express store — the smallest version of the retailer.

This new concept for a Walmart opened last June in Northwest Arkansas. The store is about 15,000 square feet and offers groceries and general merchandise.

The website does not say how many people these stores employ.

One of the first two Walmart Express stores is located in Gentry, Arkansas — a town with a population of a little more than 3,000 people, according to the 2010 census.

Athens, by comparison, has a population of more than 116,000 people, also according to the census.

But Athens also has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

According to the 2000 census, about 30 percent of Athens residents live below the poverty level.

So, critics of the Walmart say jobs are needed, but the quality of jobs is more important than the quantity of jobs.

In a February Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting, supporters of the Walmart said it pays about $11.10 an hour. Critics argued it was more like $7.50 an hour, and Walmart’s website claims the average hourly wage of full-time associates is about $12.43 per hour.

Glassdoor.com, a website that gathers employment data, said the average hourly wage for a Walmart in the Atlanta area is $8.13. Glassdoor gets its information from anonymous reports on the website.

The minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.

By comparison, the Lay Z Shopper on East Clayton Street sells similar items to Walmart such as groceries, some hardware supplies and other convenience items. It pays its employees about $8 per hour.

Even if wages were the same, some critics still say Walmart jobs don’t have the same quality as other downtown jobs.

But Tron disagreed.

He said in order for a shopping center, such as the one Selig proposes, shopping centers need a niche market to succeed.

“Usually the way the developers will look at it is if they see a niche or a need for this particular shopping center or this particular retail format that it will work harmoniously with other centers or other retailers in that area,” he said.

Hull doesn’t believe Walmart will harmonize with downtown.

He said it would strip originality from downtown — taking with it many customers who come to downtown for the experience.

Tron did not agree.

“And there are consumers that are much more content with the sort of mom and pop downtown,” he said. “I think both of those could actually end up working hand in hand.”

As far as employment, this may be the case.

Hull, who has worked at The Grill for 11 years, said he was not afraid of losing his employees to a possible Walmart.

He said the type of people working at the Athens-staple restaurant; do so for a reason — they serve a niche.

“I don’t think any of our employees would go the Walmart route,” he said. “It’s just not our style.”

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