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Guest what? Walmart’s invite-only meeting irks some

Brooklyn Daily

Walmart is hiding behind closed doors and won’t talk to the public about the big-box store’s plans to move into Brooklyn, say opponents of the retailer who were shut out of a private meeting between company brass and community leaders on Thursday.

Now, residents who wished they’d gotteb an invitation to the meeting fear the superstore is doing an end-around to make sure their voices won’t be heard.

“I have been in East New York for more than 50 years,” said Ana Aguirre, executive director of the United Community Centers on New Lots Avenue, which provides information on HIV and offers daycare services. “I am deeply rooted in the neighborhood, but I wasn’t invited to this meeting. It’s very clear that Walmart doesn’t want to hear from the community.”

Aquirre was one of about a dozen protestors who heard about the invitation-only meeting through the grapevine, and then followed those in attendance to two different locations so they could voice their dissent.

More than 30 people — including community board members, clergy and non-profit companies from the East New York area — were invited to the meeting, which was labeled as a “discussion” where one could “ask questions and discover important information about Walmart.”

But Walmart spokesman Steve Restivo said his company will become much more open with the community as soon as it actually announces plans to build here.

“When we decide to bring a store to Brooklyn, there won’t be one meeting, there will be dozens.” Restivo said, explaining that when Walmart announced they were going to open four stores in the DC area, it held more than 60 community forums on how the stores would affect the community.

“All of those meetings were public meetings, but they were about specific projects in specific neighborhoods,” he said.

Restivo explained that Walmart has held similar invite-only meetings across the five boroughs, and all of them went off without a hitch.

But some say the fact that the meetings are not open to everyone is reason enough to think Walmart won’t be a good neighbor.

“They’re cowards,” said Councilman Charles Barron (D–East New York), a staunch Walmart opponent. “If you’ve got a good product you would want to world to know, but they’re hiding in a closed-door meeting that they moved when they learned we were going to be there. If this company could defend what they’re saying, then they wouldn’t mind having me go in there. But they don’t want to face the truth. They’d rather sneak around.”

The Thursday morning meeting was slated to take place at the Lindenwood Diner on Linden Boulevard, about two miles from the proposed Gateway II project, where the borough’s first Walmart is expected to be built.

But the meeting was publicized in the New York Daily News, sparking a last-minute decision to move it to a community center at Atlantic Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Bedford-Stuyvesant — about four miles away from the project site.

The last-minute switch did not confuse Walmart protestors, who showed up anyway and demanded that the chain come clean about what they think are the its non-union policies.

The meeting was part of Walmart’s ongoing PR blitz that included a $4-million donation that helped 1,000 Brooklyn teens get summer jobs and a $150,000 contribution to Borough President Markowitz’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s Concert Series.

Its been long-believed that Walmart plans to open a store the size of three football fields at Gateway II, but nothing official has been announced, Restivo said.

Those that did attend the meeting said Walmart would make hiring locally a priority if it did decide to open a store in East New York.

“I run a job placement program and I get about 200 employment applications at this office a week, but I don’t have a single job for any of them,” said Dedra Wade, president of the Community Partners Commission Association, which helps East New York residents find jobs. “But Walmart said that if it comes here they will tell us what the company’s job requirements are, so they can hire our people.”

Thursday’s meeting comes on the heels of a Quinnipiac pol that found 71 percent of Brooklynites would welcome the superstore if it opened at Gateway II — a slightly smaller percentage than the one Walmart received when the company did its own poll last year.

But just because Walmart is meeting with Brooklynites, doesn’t mean it will definitely open a store here.

Related Companies, the lead developer on the Gateway II project, still needs 14 acres of state-owned land to begin construction on the mall where the Walmart could fit. Opponents, who claim that the state gave the developer a sweetheart deal, have successfully petitioned the State Comptroller’s office to review the sale, leaving the development in limbo.

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