St. Petersburg, FL. Wal-Mart Loves That Dirty Water
In a 2008 "sustainability" report, Wal-Mart boasted that it could convert "brownfield" building sites into an environmental bonus. "Selecting 'brownfield' sites for stores is another way that we can be a leader in responsible land development," the company explained. "Not only is this approach more sustainable for the environment, but from an economic perspective, it is good for our communities."
If a piece of property needs more than a quarter of a million dollars worth of "remediation," Wal-Mart considers it to be a brownfields site. In 2006, Wal-Mart claimed it opened 4 stores on brownfield sites, or about 3% of the 125 new store locations the company opened in this period. Yet Wal-Mart said 4 brownfield stores was "too aggressive," so the whole concept was greenwashing symbolism at best.
"Brownfield development can be good for our business," Wal-Mart told its shareholders, but what it did not explain was the welfare bonus that comes with many of these sites.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Wal-Mart has converted 'polluted' sites into millions of dollars in corporate welfare. The retailer turned a potential Sam's Club site with chlorinated pollutants in the groundwater into green tax break.
It happened this past week when a lawyer working for Wal-Mart asked state taxpayers to pony up $240,000 to rid a site of pollution attributed to a neighboring dry cleaning business. This pollution gave Wal-Mart the opportunity it needed to take Florida taxpayers to the cleaners.
If the St. Petersburg City Council declares the Wal-Mart site a "brownfield," Wal-Mart will be able to apply for a handsome tax break for every job "created" on the site.
Even worse, it turns out that Wal-Mart is addicted to this welfare. The company hit state officials up for the same tax giveaway, using the same lawyer, in 2008, when it submitted a superstore project that was near another brownfield site in St. Petersburg. In fact, the city's Mayor had to expand the boundary line for the brownfield district to make the Wal-Mart site eligible.
Wal-Mart also used allegedly contaminated water in Miami and Boynton Beach, Florida for a tax credit bonanza in those cities as well. The Tampa News claims that Wal-Mart has clawed back as much as $12 million in brownfield tax deals in Florida alone. The newspaper quotes the head of the research group Integrity Florida as saying, "Wal-Mart is a smart company... They typically come in at the last second and get tax breaks, which to them is the icing on the cake."
But Wal-Mart told the News that brownfield tax breaks are a "valuable tool," and the retailer has been able to take full value of these giveaways. "If Florida taxpayers end up giving tax incentives to bring jobs here, but then the company doesn't provide jobs that have health care or are high paying, then what have we gained?" Intergrity Florida told the Tampa News. "How many of these employees will have to rely on services that are financed by taxpayers? How much are these big box retail stores undermining retail districts elsewhere? These are fair questions the public needs to ask."
What you can do: This Sam's club deal is not yet done. The St. Petersburg City Council will convene May 17th to review the tax breaks for Sam's Club. At the last Wal-Mart tax break hearing, the News reports that only one person showed up.
But St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster apparently is not ready to sign the dotted line. City Council member Karl Nurse smells a bail out in the making. He told the Tampa News that this site once housed a Home Depot and an Office Depot -- and neither company received a tax break. "I can't figure out what this has to do with a brownfield site," Councilor Nurse admitted "If there are contaminants, it didn't seem to bother Home Depot or Office Depot. I'm pretty skeptical about this."
Readers are urged to email Mayor Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Foster,
You say you are 'all about transparency, accountability and results.' It's time to be transparent about the tax breaks that St. Pete's is giving to the world's biggest retailer. The Walton family does not need a tax break to build one more Sam's Club in St. Petersburg. If other retailers located on this site without a tax break, there is no justification for giving taxpayers money away to one of the richest families in America.
I urge you not to turn brownfields into greenbacks."