Hope Mills, NC. Town Sends Back Wal-Mart "Donations"
The Town Manager in the community of Hope Mills, North Carolina is sending back some gifts from Wal-Mart, which happened to arrive in the middle of the giant retailer's effort to gain town approval for one of their stores. The "gifts" apparently looked too much like "bribes" to some people in town.
The story broke this week in the Fay Observer, which reported that Town Manager John Ellis had bundled up a donation of recreation equipment from the local Wal-Mart after concerns were raised about the propriety of accepting the equipment in the middle of a Wal-Mart campaign to build a new store in town.
In a public letter, Town Manager Ellis explained what happened: "Apparently, the local [Wal-Mart] store called Parks and Recreation yesterday to say that they had some items that they were going to discard and wanted to know if we wanted any of the items. The items were a quickster pitch (a net that someone can pitch at), and 3 shockwaves (which are a tight net that forces the ball back to the thrower), and a hit-away, which is a pole with a ball attached to a string for hitting practice. There was no ill intent on anyone's part in accepting this donation. Because of concerns related to the rezoning on Legion at Elk, I have directed that the items be returned to the store immediately."
But it turns out that Wal-Mart came bearing other trinkets for Hope Mills. The town had applied for a $2,500 grant for playground equipment from the Wal-Mart Foundation, the retailer's philanthropic estate tax dodge. Ellis admitted that he had pulled that grant application as well, and "I will not authorize the application of any grant funds from Wal-Mart or donation of any items from them. Ellis noted his decision to turn back the gifts "after citizens inquired about the donation."
The head of the Town's Recreation Department told the newspaper that Wal-Mart just called him out of the blue to offer the baseball equipment, which the retailer claimed they were throwing out. "It's nothing new, nothing unusual," the Rec department explained. And he clearly would have kept the equipment until the Town Manager threw him a curve.
"It's definitely a loss," the Rec Head lamented, "because they supported the recreation center. This was going to be used for baseball programs and stuff like that. If they give something to the recreation department, it's going to be used."
Coincidentally, Town Commissioners several days ago accepted a third "gift" from Wal-Mart: a $1,000 grant for the town to buy 3 protective police vests for the Hope Mills Police Department. This is pocket change compared to the beefed up public safety budget that will be needed to provide incident responses at the proposed Wal-Mart. The retailer is the beneficiary of First Responders for everything from shoplifting to car jacking to false alarms. Many communities have complained that Wal-Mart has punched a hole in their local police and fire budgets, so its fitting that Wal-Mart passes out a few bucks to give the cops bullet-proof vests.
One Town Board member argued that Hope Mills should keep all the Wal-Mart bling. "I personally think people are taking this Wal-Mart thing a little to (sic) far... I think we should have kept the donated items," the Board member wrote in a letter to the Town Manager, "as this would not have been an issue if this zoning case had not come up. We need all the parks and rec equipment we can get. I think we are hurting ourselves by worrying what people think." After all, elected officials can't spend time worrying about what their constituents think!
The Town's lawyer told the Fay Observer that it was "appropriate" for the Manager to give back the gifts, "but it was not legally required. It wasn't necessary, but it's certainly understandable given the strong feelings this project has generated."
The good news is that Wal-Mart said there were no hard feelings about getting their gifts returned. Surely Wal-Mart is a retail pace-setter for having items returned. Wal-Mart promised that after the company's application is processed, the store will put the town back on its donation list for things like "shockwaves" and "hit-aways."
What you can do: Readers are urged to email Town Manager John Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Manager Ellis,
I am glad to hear that you have sent back Wal-Mart's 'gifts' to the Town, and that you are concerned about the appearance of a conflict---even if others see no conflict.
I'm also glad you appreciate the controversy this unnecessary Wal-Mart presents to Hope Mills, and that you DO care what town residents think.
There is just one more thing that needs to be returned unused: Wal-Mart's proposal to build another store. The town needs to send the message that Hope Mills is not for sale--and that a few bullet-proof vests will not protect the town from the negative financial impacts that come with market control by one big player.
If Wal-Mart is so ethically-challenged not to realize that its police equipment and sports equipment might look like "little bribes" to grease the skids in a little town---at least someone in public office responded to the conflict.
Tell Wal-Mart: you keep your store, we'll keep our local jobs."