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No Costco

Simon Property Group last week announced a proposal to raze the University Mall it manages and replace it with a mix of retail, medical offices and high-rise residence towers, plus some free-standing businesses like restaurants, a health club and bookstore.

The deal hinges on whether Simon, which leases the land, can work out a dispute with the landowners, a pair of real estate investment companies, over a dispute over Simon’s management of the failing mall. Those negotiations should be attempted in the next month.

We learned this much. The best bet for an anchor retailer is Target, which has built some multi-story units that rise up rather than out. Such a building would work with the parking decks that city planners hope to use on the 27-acre site so that it may be used more intensively and still provide room for some green space. Some people had hoped Costco could be attracted to the project. It’s the warehouse club with a union workforce, famous bargains on high-end goods and the biggest retail wine business in the country.

Scott Richardson, Simon’s project director, said Costco wasn’t interested in Arkansas at the moment. It’s also a poor fit for the site, he said, because it typically builds sprawling one-level stores and requires large amounts of surface parking. Maybe somewhere else someday. It is also impossible for a retailer such as Costco to sell alcohol, except at a totally separate facility.

Too sexy for Wal-Mart

Staid Wal-Mart, a buttoned-down company famous for policing raunchy lyrics in music and other values-oriented inventory policies, fed the media mill last week with the dismissal of Julie Roehm, its top marketing executive, after less than a year on the job. An assistant also was dismissed.

A variety of allegations attended the abrupt change, though Roehm disputed them — that she had an inappropriate relationship with the subordinate, that her glitzy stockholders meeting production had left old-line executives uncomfortable, that some ads she’d overseen featuring lingerie had similarly discomfited Wal-Mart execs. Finally, news accounts said, there were allegations that she’d accepted gifts from ad agencies, such as meals at fancy restaurants. Wal-Mart has a strict and lauded policy against accepting gratuities from its vendors.

But: Does Wal-Mart walk the same ethical walk in its own relationships, such as in lobbying the Arkansas legislature?

Answer: No. In addition to giving large sums in campaign contributions, it spends some relatively modest amounts on legislative entertainment. During the 2005 session, for example, the company spent $1,158 on “special events,” primarily in contributions to big parties thrown for the new House speaker and Senate president pro tem. In January of this year, it spent $3,000 to underwrite the Washington County Lincoln Day dinner, a contribution the company reported was a benefit for Rep. Horace Hardwick, a Bentonville Republican who handles Walton and Wal-Mart related legislation, such as the tax exemption for art purchased for the Walton-underwritten Crystal Bridges art museum in Bentonville.

Company spokesman Dan Tovar said the company sees its own policy on accepting gifts and giving entertainment to legislators as an “apples and oranges” comparison.

“We support elective officials on both sides of the aisle who are either pro-business or pro-Wal-Mart. They take actions on a number of important issues. We believe we have responsibilities to our customers and shareholders to work to solve challenges facing the country. That’s why we participate in those types of things and support candidates.”

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