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Walmart stirs controversy into the news cycle

The mega-retailer's intention to open a store near the Empire Center has citizens divided.

December 27, 2011|By Mark Kellam, mark.kellam@latimes.com

A future Walmart in Burbank dominated the public discourse in 2011, sparking protests at City Hall, new Facebook pages opposing the retailer’s move into the city and divided opinions among residents — and it’s only just begun.

Walmart is scheduled to open near the Empire Center in early 2013, according to spokesman Steve Restivo. 

The mega-retailer’s sometimes rocky road to Burbank started in early July when news broke that the Walmart Real Estate Business Trust had purchased 12 acres where a 120,000-square-foot Great Indoors store was located. That store closed about two months later.

Public outcry against Walmart as a replacement was swift and vehement.

Concerns were raised about increased traffic and crime, as well as the retailer’s treatment of employees — who are not unionized — and its practice of offering lower prices than competitors and the impact to the local businesses.

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Walmart officials countered that most of their employees work full-time and assured residents that the store wanted to be a good neighbor.

Walmart supporters began to speak up, saying a store would create jobs and generate city tax revenues.

For several months, Walmart officials held their cards close to the vest, saying they didn’t know what they would do with the former Great Indoors building. On Sept. 16, however, store representatives made it official: they planned to open a Walmart at the prime location.

A few days later, a group of Walmart opponents protested in front of Burbank City Hall and railed against the plans in City Council chambers.

But City Council members can’t do much to stop Walmart because the building is already zoned for commercial use and company officials haven’t said they plan to seek permits to allow special uses, such as operating 24 hours a day or selling alcohol.

In an effort to quell concerns, Walmart held a public open house a few days later at its future Burbank site.

The event wasn’t structured in a town-hall format. Instead, five stations were set up covering a variety of store functions, such as operations, construction and environmental sustainability.

Hundreds of residents walked up to the stations, each manned by Walmart employees who answered questions one-on-one.

Many of those opposed to Walmart were incensed by the event’s structure and said it was more of a public-relations stunt than a meeting to gather input from residents.

Walmart representatives reported that 200 people signed cards in support of the new store at the event.

As of Tuesday, no visible work had started on the future Walmart site. A security guard stood outside to keep an eye on the building as it awaits its renovation.

In a few months, Walmart will open its doors in Burbank, attracting shoppers from surrounding communities and perhaps drawing fire for snarled traffic, retail closings and increased criminal activity, such as the recent pepper-spray incident at its Porter Ranch location.

But the store is also expected to hire about 300 people, boost city tax coffers and offer customers low prices. The retail chain also has a history of making hefty charitable contributions in communities where it has stores.

With proponents and opponents continuing to gnash their teeth, Walmart officials say the only true test of community support will come after the store is open — and the public votes with its wallet.

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