The Panorama High School marching band plays at the grand opening of the… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
It wasn't long ago that Liz Lopez watched in dismay as the Vannord Shopping Center in her Panorama City neighborhood went downhill, losing its anchor, Valley Foods Warehouse, among a number of other tenants.
So Lopez, 33, and her mother, Delmy Lopez, 65, made it a point to attend Friday's grand opening of the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market. They stood patiently with about 200 other soon-to-be shoppers, waiting for the speeches to end so they could push their carts through the store's sliding doors.
And there were no protesters in sight.
Wal-Mart's intention to open a similar grocery-only store in Chinatown has drawn protracted protests from labor and community groups. The uproar over the downtown site helped bring about 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 in the San Fernando Valley, the new Neighborhood Market — the first of its kind in Los Angeles — was welcomed with laudatory speeches and the Panorama High School marching band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Liz Lopez said she sympathizes with labor groups who take issue with Wal-Mart's nonunion workforce and an average hourly full-time wage of $12.82 in California. 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, referring the 65 workers hired to stock shelves and run the cash registers.
Wal-Mart plans to roll out other Neighborhood Markets, including ones in Altadena, Downey and Bell Gardens. The Chinatown store is under construction and 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 — a bargain goods store and a chicken wings outlet — since Wal-Mart announced in April that it was coming to the corner of Nordhoff Street and Van Nuys Boulevard.
All the stores will open in buildings that have sat vacant for years, she said. And although the center still has 10 vacancies, Ponder is optimistic.
"We're turning a corner," she said.