I can’t believe we might fight this battle again.
Walmart is opening a store next month on Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga, not far from the Walden Galleria. Given its business model, I thought the big-box discount retailer would plan a “bus lane” to the front door, call the NFTA to make sure it bumped up service, and plaster “Store Opening” flyers in city bus shelters.
It makes sense for Walmart to make life easy for potential customers and prospective workers, many of whom live in the city and can’t afford a car.
Maybe I’m naive. Or, more likely, Walmart officials are simply clueless. Whether they realize it or not, they may be stumbling into a hornet’s nest.
Instead of making space for a public bus stop near the front door, Walmart officials for six months stonewalled the NFTA’s requests for bus access. Calls from The News prompted a company spokesman last week to say they would think it over. The same spokesman on Friday said there’s no room to safely run a bus onto the property.
All of which sounds weak, flimsy and questionable.
My unsolicited advice is they change their minds and nod their corporate head. Walmart apparently doesn’t know what it’s getting into.
This community has a nasty, racially tinged scar from a similar situation that happened just up the road. Teenager Cynthia Wiggins was crushed by a dump truck in 1995 while crossing busy Walden Avenue on a rainy day. The young mother had just gotten off the No. 6 bus, headed to her job in the Walden Galleria food court. She had to cross the six-lane road because mall officials had barred from its property public buses from the city.
Although Galleria officials never admitted as much, it sure seemed like they didn’t want inner-city folks at the upscale mall. The stench of covert racism took the story national. Within weeks, the Galleria – threatened with a boycott – allowed public buses onto the property. It subsequently paid a $2.55 million settlement to Wiggins’ young son.
Twenty-one years later, Walmart’s public-transportation rejection is reviving memories of a bus ban that made an unintentional martyr of a teenager.
Knowing the clientele it partly serves, it’s hard to believe Walmart wouldn’t have anticipated the need for a door-front bus stop. Or sacrificed parking spots for a bus lane, instead of claiming it’s too late to make the lot bus-friendly. Instead, bus-riding workers and customers will have to cross Walden Avenue and trek through the parking lot – even in the dead of winter.
At the corner of Bailey and Delavan avenues is a prime feeder stop for the Number 46 line to Walden Avenue and Walmart. None of the riders I spoke with Thursday, even before Walmart solidified the “no bus” edict, was buying any excuse.
“It’s the same scenario as Wiggins,” said Ray Davis, a 47-year-old temp worker. “They don’t want blacks out there. It’s not right. A lot of people here have no car. They need to take the bus.”
Kenneth Johnson, 51, an electrical engineer, pointed to the drugstore across the street.
“We pay exorbitant prices at those places, because it’s the only game in town,” Johnson told me. “People here want the value and benefit of a store like Walmart. But they need transportation. A lot of people don’t have cars, and they only put those stores on the outskirts.”
The NFTA already beefed up Walden Avenue bus service, expecting a bump in inner-city customers and workers headed to Walmart – which doesn’t have a Buffalo store. Forget for a moment fairness or ethics. Purely on business terms, bringing the bus to the store’s door works not just for riders. It works for Walmart.
“You’ve got elderly people going out there, it’s too dangerous to cross that street,” said Claudette Harris, 61, while waiting for the bus with a two-wheeled grocery cart. “They’ll lose a lot of customers if they don’t let the bus in the lot.”
Walmart should be bending over backward to get buses to its door. Instead it stonewalled the NFTA for months, then said it’s too late to change the plan. Company officials aren’t just turning their backs on potential inner-city customers and employees. The shadow of Cynthia Wiggins hovers over their heads.