Sherwood's Notebook: Where's Waldo, er, Wal-Mart?

Before even laying a brick, mega-retailer Wal-Mart pulled the plug last week on two promised stores for the District.

The pullout reminded us of the late Jerry Reed’s country music hit back in 1982, “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).”

Wal-Mart walks away with three operating stores in the city while the District government is left to scramble for replacement retail just as the national economy, or at least the stock market, seems to be tanking.

Retrenching, refocusing and reconsidering are all part of profit-making businesses. But the Wal-Mart decision in the District is especially cold-blooded.

Although it has opened the other stores, the two it dropped were in the neighborhoods that most desperately need quality jobs and reliable retail and grocery options — the long-neglected Skyland Center on Alabama Avenue SE and the Capitol Gateway project on East Capitol Street near the Maryland line.

After NBC4 first broke the story, an angry Mayor Muriel Bowser told reporters she was “blood mad” at the company’s decision. Former Mayor Vincent Gray, who brokered the original deal for six stores, was furious, too — and not just because he’s about to launch a D.C. Council comeback attempt for a seat either in Ward 7 (home to the two jettisoned sites) or at-large.

The Bowser administration, which doesn’t want to see Gray back in office because he’d likely run for mayor again in 2018, notes that Gray didn’t nail down one of his signature deals.

Wal-Mart says it’s undergoing an international restructuring, and one representative told The Washington Post that the D.C. stores already operating are seriously underperforming projections.

Whatever the balance sheets may be, Wal-Mart as a company has damaged its relationship with the city. Truth be told, our city is not even a pimple on the cheek of this retail giant with a market value of about $230 billion. Wal-Mart will move on with its mega-restructuring. City lawyers are promising to search for legal penalties, but Wal-Mart has lawyers, too.

The District needs to rethink how it structures such commitments to retail projects. Your Notebook on several occasions reported that the Skyland Wal-Mart seemed to be going nowhere despite an ambitious “groundbreaking” in 2014 that Gray desperately wanted.

While Gray was still mayor, the Notebook on several occasions kept pointing out that once he left office, Wal-Mart would not feel pressure to continue with Skyland. It remains to be seen how Bowser will deal with the company now.

Last year, to remove a final hurdle Gray left unfinished, the city agreed to pay Safeway about $6.4 million to compensate it for Wal-Mart's expected across-the-street competition for grocery sales.

Wal-Mart also had played a role in the city’s minimum wage battles. It threatened to abandon D.C. stores if the council approved a “living wage” requirement — then $12.50 an hour — for big-box stores. The measure failed. Now, the prospective workers for the unbuilt Wal-Marts won’t get minimum wage or anything at all because those jobs are gone, too.

■ A Jerry Reed side note. The “I Got the Shaft” country singer died just a few years after that hit. The cause? Emphysema. Smoking. He was 71.

If you follow the Notebook on Twitter (@tomsherwood), you’ve seen how we criticized the glorification of cigarettes by entertainer David Bowie, who died last week of cancer at the age of 69. Even a laudatory photo spread in The New York Times of his fashion style included three photographs with ubiquitous cigarettes in hand.

Other media outlets offered similar images despite the killer reputation of cigarettes. Just this past week, the Notebook learned of a friend our age who smoked for years and now has been diagnosed with deadly cancers.

Too many addicted smokers either shrug off warnings of cancer ahead, or offer weak responses like, “I know, I know. I’m going to quit.” And some say, “I’ve quit a dozen times.”

But they don’t quit, they’re just pausing until the next time. If they get a next time.

■ See something, “save” something! Almost everywhere you look in our city there is new construction. But the DC Preservation League doesn’t want to lose historic or other significant buildings to the bulldozer or neglect.

“Demolition by neglect and permit violations are a matter of public safety and also stand to destroy the character of our historic neighborhoods and the city’s built heritage,” the organization said in a news release last week. “Action is required to ensure that fines and penalties effectively curb the frequency of these issues.”

The league is asking the public for help in finding properties that it might highlight in its annual listing of endangered places. Take a look at this online link:

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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