BERLIN — Santa with a shovel was part of the script for Thursday’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the expansion of the local Wal-Mart. Sign-toting protesters were not.
And yet there they were, crashing a brief ceremony that began just inside the center entrance of the Berlin Mall before dignitaries moved outdoors for a little shovel work and a photo op with Santa.
Marshfield resident Jay Moore, a member of the group Occupy Central Vermont, cut off mall owner Ken Simon in midsentence, decrying the employment practices of the world’s largest retailer while holding a sign with an evil smiley face that said: “Low Wages, always.”
“Wal-Mart makes an obscene amount of money,” Moore bellowed. “Why can’t they pay living wages to their workers? This is unacceptable.”
Moore started to complain about the tax break Berlin officials recently granted for the mall expansion when fellow protester Brian Tokar, of East Montpelier, chimed in.
“We have too much Wal-Mart already,” said Tokar, one of perhaps a half dozen protesters who turned out for a 10 a.m. ceremony during which Simon praised Wal-Mart while acknowledging some view the retail giant differently.
“I know there’s a lot said about Wal-Mart, but working with Wal-Mart I know I can say they’re a very, very fine professional organization that is dedicated to their mission of providing the best merchandise … at the lowest possible price,” Simon said.
That was before Moore and Tokar briefly stole the show with a peaceful protest that began while Simon was thanking a long list of people who encouraged and helped advance the project, which includes the construction of an 18,700-square-foot addition to the mall.
The addition, coupled with the conversion of existing mall space, will boost the size of the Wal-Mart from 67,260 square feet to 93,539 square feet — allowing it to vastly expand its grocery department and the mix of merchandise it carries.
Simon said he and his partners view the Wal-Mart expansion as a significant upgrade to a shopping complex they purchased in 2010 and have sought to improve in more subtle ways since.
“This is a great step forward in our commitment to make Berlin Mall a place that is a destination for the entire area, to satisfy the needs of the market, and to make this facility something that we and the community can (be proud of),” he said.
Though Wal-Mart representatives were on hand and market manager Travis Smith was scheduled to speak, that portion of the program was scrapped after the protesters piped up.
According to prepared remarks included in a news release, Smith did have something to say.
“We are very excited to be starting the process of expanding the existing Wal-Mart in Berlin to the benefit of central Vermont,” the news release quoted Smith as saying. “The expansion is a testament to how popular the Berlin Wal-Mart is in the area.”
You couldn’t tell it by talking to Tokar, who said he isn’t alone.
“Many of us … feel that central Vermont has had enough Wal-Mart,” he said. “They claim that Wal-Mart is good for the community, but Wal-Mart has been bad for every town in every part of the country where it’s established itself.”
Though Wal-Mart expects to hire 72 additional employees — adding to its 144-member workforce — once the project is complete next year, Tokar said they could expect to be paid “slave wages,” receive no benefits and work irregular schedules.
The protesters were outnumbered at the event, which attracted more than 40 people, many of whom had a hand in a project they believe will be good for the mall, good for Berlin and good for the region.
Gov. Peter Shumlin sent a prepared statement.
“For the past 20 years, the Berlin Mall has served central Vermont as a place to shop and to meet,” Shumlin said. “This expansion opens a new chapter for this mall, and I extend my congratulations to the owners as they diligently work to meet the needs of central Vermonters of all ages.”
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the Wal-Mart expansion came three days after Berlin’s sewer commission concluded it did not have enough information to act on an informal request from a consultant representing the mall’s owners as they explore the potential to develop a vacant parking lot on the property, across Fisher Road from Central Vermont Medical Center.
Asked about that request, Simon said there was nothing to report at this time.
“We are doing some preliminary homework to determine what, if anything, is the potential for that lot,” he said.
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