Disdain for Wal-Mart subsidies in Red America town

Wal-Mart by Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

Article Highlights

  • The people of Macclenny, FL, have earned the right to gripe about Wal-Mart – they paid for the roof over the company.

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  • According to a union group, the Macclenny, FL, Wal-Mart plant got $8.9 million in subsidies.

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  • Everywhere you go in Macclenny, you find Wal-Mart detractors, writes @TPCarney

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Macclenny, Florida

Gator Patrick's is thick with cigarette smoke and country music. All drafts are $1.50 and served in a plastic cup. Cans are $2, and bottles are $2.50. A Confederate flag mosaic made of Budweiser bottle caps hangs on the wall.

And when you tell the patrons that you're a political reporter from Washington, D.C., they all have the same reaction: "What the hell brought you to Macclenny?"

A mile east on Route 90 is the answer: a sprawling, 250-acre complex, with hundreds of tractor-trailers and 880,000-square-foot warehouse. It's a Wal-Mart distribution center that's only 10 years old. You might ask Wal-Mart the same question, "What the hell brought you to Macclenny?"

The answer in Wal-Mart's case: millions and millions of dollars in government grants, tax breaks and other aid. These are called "incentives," at least by Wal-Mart and the politicians who doled them out. "Corporate welfare" might be a more accurate word. And while the politicians got down on their knees to bring Wal-Mart here a decade ago, the people of the town aren't thrilled.

The Baker County Development Commission lured in Wal-Mart by giving it the land, valued at about $1.5 million. Then the county tapped Florida's Economic Development Transportation Fund to help pave the corporate park, of which Wal-Mart would be the only tenant. The distribution center is on the edge of town, and so the federal government chipped in $1.9 million worth of government-funded water infrastructure.

A federally subsidized nonprofit called WorkSource helped train Wal-Mart's new employees, and the state of Florida kicked in hundreds of thousands for worker training. Wal-Mart also pocketed a $2.9 million Qualified Target Industry tax break.

All told, according to a union group critical of Wal-Mart, the Macclenny plant got $8.9 million in subsidies.

Without all these subsidies, maybe Macclenny, west of Jacksonville, would not have scored this Wal-Mart distribution center. The plant brought in hundreds of jobs, as the politicians will tell you. But it's hard to detect much love for Wal-Mart in Macclenny.

Dennis, in his 50s, has lived in and around Macclenny all his life. He has been an entrepreneur, starting a flooring business and now running his own auto shop. Drinking with his niece at Gator Patrick's on Monday night, Dennis was the most positive on Wal-Mart of all the residents I spoke to.

The Wal-Mart distribution center "helped this place," Dennis told me, "but giving [the company] special tax breaks and free land -- that's bulls--t. They didn't give me free land."

It's what happens once government gets into handing out special favors -- the big guys get all the politicians' love, and Mom and Pop are left fending for themselves. First, Mom and Pop don't have the lobbyists and lawyers who can lean on public officials or sniff out subsidy programs. Second, politicians want to do big things, like bringing in a giant building and promising hundreds of jobs.

In these deals, the costs are always ignored and the promised benefits are always exaggerated.

First, the costs: When Florida, Baker County or Macclenny give money to Wal-Mart, that money didn't come out of nowhere. The governments could have spent the cash on something else, or cut taxes, allowing the people -- rather than the politicians -- to determine where their money would go.

Jesse Allemand, 24, was one of a handful of ex-Wal-Mart workers at Gator Patrick's. "F--k Wal-Mart," he says to me, repeatedly. Allemand now works at the Florida supermarket chain Publix.

Dennis' niece says she worked briefly at the Wal-Mart distribution center, but she called it "a dead-end job."

Jen is a bartender at Woody's Bar-B-Q in Macclenny. She told me her son worked at the distribution center, but when his son was born prematurely with health issues, the family moved to Jacksonville and lived in the Ronald McDonald House. He couldn't make it to the distribution center on time every day. "They don't care what your reason is," she told me. And Wal-Mart let him go.

Everywhere you go in Macclenny, you find Wal-Mart detractors, which surprised me. This isn't a union town. These folks aren't chi-chi urban liberals demanding local organic produce. They are gun-toting, truck-driving Southerners. One Maclennyite who knocked Wal-Mart told me he has 20 guns, including a semi-automatic AK-47, and a Glock in his truck.

Many of the criticisms of Wal-Mart in Macclenny may come across as griping. But the people of Macclenny have earned the right to gripe about Wal-Mart -- after all, they paid for the roof over the company's head.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at [email protected] His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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