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Walmart finally gets on the bus

It sometimes takes a while, but Corporate America catches on.

It took too long for the message to filter from Buffalo to Bentonville, Ark. But once the powers that be at mighty Walmart caught the scent of a race-based controversy, their ears and eyes opened.

Time to reconsider, baby.

Umm, yes – the discount retail giant decided – we need to take a second look. There may actually be a way to accommodate public buses from the city. Sure, we can probably figure it out by the time the store on Walden Avenue opens next month.

“We want to open that store,” company spokesman Phillip Keene told me, “with everyone smiling.”

Right. And that wasn’t happening unless Walmart detoured off the road to disaster.

A horde of protesters and threats of boycott do not make for happy grand openings. That’s almost certainly what the big-box retailer was looking at, if it didn’t make a quick U-turn.

Walmart screwed up by ignoring for six months requests from the NFTA to run its Number 46 bus, which connects to the city’s East Side, onto store property. It didn’t cover itself in corporate glory by hemming and hawing for a week, then deciding it was too late to reconfigure the site for bus traffic.

Bzzzz. Wrong answer.

It took way longer than it should have, but Walmart last week finally noticed the black cloud hanging over its new-store celebration.

Behind the NFTA’s reach-out for an on-site bus stop was a tragedy involving the nearby Walden Galleria. Teenage food court worker Cynthia Wiggins was crushed by a dump truck in 1995 while crossing busy six-lane Walden Avenue. She had just exited the Number 6 bus from Buffalo, which was prohibited – in a textbook case of covert racism – from the upscale mall’s property.

Any mention of a large Walden Avenue retailer barring public buses immediately conjures images for WNYers of a dying girl sprawled on the road. That’s what Walmart was up against – although it was painfully slow to catch on. But the light finally dawned in Bentonville, after the retailer in recent weeks took a public and media beat-down, and elected officials – notably the Rev. Darius Pridgen, the Common Council member/minister – climbed on the bus.

“I think you had people at corporate headquarters who didn’t know the local issues,” Pridgen told me. “I think they’re now open to finding ways to make this work.”

No, Walmart, this isn’t just another cookie-cutter store in Anywhere, USA. Ban a bus on Walden Avenue, and you step into a corporate, public relations and – significantly, for its bottom line – consumer minefield.

I can picture it now. Just as a band strikes up and Walmart officials prepare to cut the new-store ribbon, the No. 46 bus pulls up. Out steps Pridgen, trailed by members of his True Bethel Baptist Church congregation – carrying protest signs and bearing bad tidings of a boycott. Walmart wouldn’t be selling many flat-screen TVs that day. Or for a while afterward.

Which is what company officials finally caught on to. At last word, they are working with the NFTA to let buses roll up to the store on the same byway as delivery trucks.

“We were made aware of the sensitive history here,” spokesman Keene acknowledged by phone. “Avoiding any issue of that kind, and having compassion and sensitivity is on top of our minds. We want as many people as possible to safely have access to the store.”

Which means, basically, not having those people cross six-lane Walden Avenue – especially in the middle of winter – then trek through a parking lot. Given the retailer’s low-priced lure, many of the store’s customers (and employees) will get there by bus. It never made sense to me that Walmart wouldn’t bend over backwards to make sure buses got to the door. Anything less wasn’t just bad public relations. It was bad business.

Which company officials finally seem to realize. It’s nice that their eyes and ears finally opened. Before their corporate butts got kicked.