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Wal-Mart starts construction of Chinatown store as protest looms

Chinatown Wal-Mart
Retail giant Wal-Mart celebrated the start of construction on its controversial new store in Chinatown on Tuesday, days before a planned march that labor organizers are touting as the largest anti-Wal-Mart demonstration in U.S. history.

At a news conference inside a cavernous storefront that is being converted into a 33,000-square-foot grocery store, Wal-Mart officials and local business leaders exchanged traditional Chinese good-luck offerings as local performers did a dragon dance. Kim Sentovich, a Wal-Mart senior vice president, told the crowd that her company was proud "to improve access to fresh and affordable healthy foods.

"Everything we do is connected with our mission of helping people to save money so they can live better," Sentovich said.

As she spoke, several labor-allied activists who had showed up uninvited weaved through the crowd distributing statements in which they dismissed the event as a "dog-and-pony show."

Labor unions and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an advocacy group that opposes Wal-Mart's low wages and nonunion workforce, have been fighting the project since the chain announced earlier this year that it planned to open a grocery store at Cesar Chavez and Grand avenues on the ground floor of an existing apartment building.

Activists pushed the Los Angeles City Council to draft a law temporarily banning large chain stores from opening in the neighborhood. But the council's 13-0 vote came too late. Wal-Mart had secured building permits the day before, giving it the green light to move forward on the project.

The Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance has filed an appeal with the city, which is under review. In the meantime, activists are organizing a weekend of anti-Wal-Mart actions, including a protest concert Friday night and a big march Saturday.

George Yu, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, said after the news conference that most people in the neighborhood support the new store. "If our local residents had told us, 'We don't want this in Chinatown,' I would have been out in front against it," he said.

Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, touted Wal-Mart's philanthropy in the community. This year, his organization won an $800,000 grant from the chain to help fund hundreds of summer jobs for young people, including more than 200 jobs at Summer Night Lights, a city-run program that keeps parks open at night during the warm months. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will attend the program's kick-off Wednesday, along with Wal-Mart officials.

RELATED:

L.A. council votes too late to block Chinatown Wal-Mart project

Wal-Mart cuts ties with public relations firm over impersonation

Wal-Mart consultant posed as reporter at opposition's L.A. events

-- Kate Linthicum at Los Angeles City Hall

twitter.com/katelinthicum

Photo: A traditional Chinese dance was part of a news conference celebrating the start of construction Tuesday. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

 
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