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Wal-Mart opens in Panorama City to cheers

September 28, 2012 |  1:44 pm

Several hundred soon-to-be shoppers gathered outside Panorama City's new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market

This post has been updated. See below.

The members of Panorama City High School's marching band, standing out in their uniforms with gold trim, played loud and joyfully while several hundred soon-to-be shoppers gathered Friday outside the community's new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.

It wasn't long ago that resident Liz Lopez had watched in dismay as the neighborhood's Vannord Shopping Center went downhill and lost its anchor, Valley Foods Warehouse, along with a number of other tenants.

So Lopez, 33, and her mother, Delmy Lopez, 65, made it a point to attend Friday's grand opening, standing patiently waiting for the speeches to end so they could push their giant shopping cart through the Wal-Mart store's sliding doors.

Wal-Mart's intention to open a similar grocery-only store in Chinatown has drawn protracted protests from labor and community groups in downtown Los Angeles. It also sparked a temporary ban on similar large retail stores to give city officials time to review the potential effects on small, ethnic grocers in the Chinatown district.

But the opening of the Panorama City store -- the first of its kind in Los Angeles -- was welcomed with laudatory speeches and the band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." No protesters were in sight at the shopping center, located at the corner of Nordhoff Street and Van Nuys Boulevard.

Allison Mannos of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a labor advocacy organization, said the Panorama City store is not the group's focus. But it is pushing for Los Angeles City Council support of a citywide moratorium of large retail stores, which could block future locations.

Liz Lopez said she sympathizes with labor groups who take issue with Wal-Mart's nonunion workforce and low-end wages. [Updated at 5:40 p.m.: The company's average hourly full-time wage in California is $12.82.] But with high unemployment and a still-fragile economy, she and her neighbors have bigger things to worry about, she said.

"It's nice to see a high-quality grocery store that will stay," Lopez said of the retailing giant. "The economy has given us a lot more to worry about than unions, unfortunately."

Jerry Spencer, Wal-Mart's vice president of operations, told the crowd that the corporation is expanding in Southern California, and pledged to be a good corporate citizen, offering jobs, stability and involvement in community events.

"This is a chance to grow your career," he said, referencing the 65 new workers hired to stock shelves and run the cash registers. "There is lots of opportunity as a Wal-Mart associate."

Wal-Mart plans to roll out other Neighborhood Markets in Los Angeles, including locations in Altadena, Downey and Bell Gardens. The Chinatown store is under construction and is set to open in early 2013.

The Neighborhood Market is a smaller version of Wal-Mart's better-known superstores, and carries groceries, general merchandise and pharmacy items.

Suzanne Ponder, manager of the Vannord Shopping Center, said she has signed leases for two more tenants since Wal-Mart announced it was coming -- a bargain-goods store and a chicken wings outlet. All of the stores will open in buildings that have sat vacant for years, she said.

She said the center still has 10 vacancies, but that she's optimistic.

"We're turning a corner," she said.


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Photo: The Panorama City High School marching band plays at the opening of the new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times