If you've kept up with the issues before the Richmond Planning Commission, you know it is faced with a thorny question right now. It soon must decide whether to approve a new supermarket for a retail space near Macdonald and San Pablo avenues or opt for what's currently there -- the empty shell of a former Albertsons store that's fronted by a cyclone fence and "no trespassing" signs.
The prospect of a new store and more jobs might seem like an easy choice over a building that has sat empty for eight years, but you don't know the dirty little secret: The prospective tenant is rumored to be a Neighborhood Market operated by -- pardon the language -- Walmart.
Technically, the city has placed the project on hold for an environmental review -- replacing an old grocery store with a new one apparently requires exhaustive study -- but the driving force behind the delay was a letter from an attorney representing an unhappy neighborhood group.
Walmart often gets the kind of reception from residents usually reserved for a case of the shingles. Critics fault it for nonunion working conditions, low-grade merchandise and bare-bones pricing that chokes competition. If those charges don't stick, concerns are raised over traffic and parking, as they were this time.
The company easily ranks as the most successful unpopular retailer on the planet, because for all the roadblocks thrown in its path, profits keep rising like hot air balloons.
Demonstrators carried picket signs the other day -- "Walmart: How the 1% hurts the 99%" -- even if the message seemed short on logic. I'm fairly certain it's the 99 percent who do all the shopping at Walmart.
This bubbling controversy called to me the other day. I wanted to find out for myself just how miserable life is inside Walmart's walls, where underpaid employees working in dire conditions stock inferior products. There was no nearby Neighborhood Market, so I visited the Walmart in Martinez, where groceries share space with lawn chairs, motor oil and lipstick.
A smiling clerk in the automotive department asked if I needed help. Another in sporting goods politely apologized for blocking an aisle while stocking merchandise. In the grocery section, I found unknown brands such as Jimmy Dean sausage, Kellogg's cornflakes and Lipton tea. The Blue Bonnet margarine was near the Philadelphia Cream Cheese, just down from the Fritos corn chips.
Surely, there must be some problems with having a Walmart store in town.
"There haven't really been any complaints," said Mayor Rob Schroder, who helped bring Walmart to Martinez more than 10 years ago. "It's been good for the city. They provided a grant to refurbish one of our baseball fields, and about four years ago, they gave grants to the schools inside city limits."
He conceded there was initial concern about Safeway and Nob Hill losing market share and abandoning the shopping centers they anchor, but that never happened. Instead, a Home Depot store moved in across the parking lot from Walmart, where more than 150 cars were parked Thursday afternoon.
There was one last test to administer in Martinez. As I checked out, I asked the cashier how her day had gone.
"Just fine, sir," she said. "How about yours? Did you find everything you wanted?"
Yep, I found out everything I came for. I don't think Walmart is a grave danger to anyone.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.