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Residents talk about Wal-Mart

Community dialogue group opens discussions with help from movies

Posted: Sunday, December 04, 2005

Wal-Mart gets people talking.

As letters to the editor and postings from the Clarion Web site show, opinions about the proposed construction of a supercenter in Kenai are wildly mixed, often fixed and staunchly defended by Kenai Peninsula residents. Opinions strongly favoring or opposing the store only begin to scratch the surface.

With this in mind, the Center for Mediation and Community Dialogue held its monthly First Friday discussion Saturday to allow time for two films on Wal-Mart before opening the roundtable-style discussion. About 35 people attended the meeting.

“This is not a forum for people to argue for or against Wal-Mart,” said Kenai Peninsula College Director Gary Turner before the screening. “This is meant to educate people.”

CMCD facilitator and KPC Assistant Professor Christine Gehrett explained that respect is especially important in Kenai.

“This is a small community. We see each other at Safeway, we see each other around town. We ought to be able to see those who disagree with us as people and not enemies,” Gehrett said.

The first film screened, “Why Wal-Mart Works: And Why That Drives Some People Crazy,” was released on DVD Nov. 15 by independent filmmakers Robert and Ron Galloway.

The film takes a positive look at the retailer, focusing on jobs, how low prices help struggling families and the company’s post-Katrina relief efforts. The film also highlighted the bustling downtown of Boone, N.C., and pointed out that small retailers can benefit by offering specialty items Wal-Mart does not.

Much of “Why Wal-Mart Works” was an attempt to refute the arguments presented in the second film screened Saturday, Robert Greenwald’s “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”

This film started out profiling small business owners who closed their doors after Wal-Mart came to town.

It also claimed that Wal-Mart pays low wages, offers poor benefits, neglects parking lot safety, receives large city subsidies, quashes unions and overworks laborers in developing nations like China.

Kenai Mayor Pat Porter and Kenai City Council members Rick Ross and Bob Molloy attended the screening. After the second film, Gehrett asked them for an update.

Porter said the Planning and Zoning Commission had recommended the council approve Wal-Mart’s lease application, but that recommendation was appealed.

The council should rule on the appeal at Wednesday’s meeting. If the application is approved, then the city will begin to work with the company on a lease agreement.

After the update, Gehrett opened the floor to discussion. Traffic flow on Marathon Road, wages and the impact on local businesses were all major topics, and concern was expressed that Kenai may be left with an empty building if Wal-Mart decides to leave.

Some wondered if the subsidies spoken of in the film were offered to the company by Kenai.

“They filed a standard lease application,” Porter said. “They didn’t ask for anything.”

Ross said the views of residents matter more than the views presented in the films.

“I don’t know how to relate to films, but I can relate to you,” he said.



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