By  on February 4, 2011

NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. declined to attend Thursday’s New York City Council hearing on how its stores affect small businesses and communities, but it dropped off a petition with 30,000 consumers’ signatures in support of opening units in the five boroughs.

The hearing was spearheaded by City Council speaker Christine Quinn, a vocal critic of Wal-Mart, who is bent on preventing the retail giant from entering New York City.

Wal-Mart has yet to identify a site in New York, but has expressed interest in Gateway II, a shopping center near Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn that doesn’t require City Council approval. Steven Restivo, community affairs director for Wal-Mart, said the Brooklyn location is a possibility. “We’re evaluating opportunities for small, medium and large stores in New York City,” he said. Asked whether stores in low-income areas will be a trade-off for units in wealthier locales, he said, “Yes, we’re also interested in going into more prosperous neighborhoods. Just because you live in a big city doesn’t mean you have to pay higher prices. We’re willing to make a little less on an apple if we can sell more apples. We’re looking at all five boroughs, but are centered on underserved communities.”

The council invited speakers such as David Merriman, a professor of public education at the University of Illinois-Chicago, who studied the impact of a 2006 Wal-Mart SuperCenter on Chicago’s West Side. The study found that 82 of 306 businesses closed and about 300 jobs were lost after Wal-Mart opened. The hearing also looked at Wal-Mart’s employment practices, such as wages and benefits.

Wal-Mart has been waging an aggressive campaign to win over New Yorkers with radio and TV spots and a documentary-style video about the retailer’s store in Chicago’s 37th ward. Why is Wal-Mart spending so much money to gain support when Gateway II doesn’t require government approval? “We want to be part of the solution,” Restivo said. “As a company, we’ve made significant changes over the past several years.”

Taking a page from its Chicago playbook — Wal-Mart reached an agreement with building trades in the Windy City — the retailer struck a deal with New York construction unions to build stores with organized labor. Restivo said the company is not negotiating with other unions. Wal-Mart has battled for years to keep its retail workers from being unionized.

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