"I wouldn't have signed it if I had known what it was," Mayeux says. She remembers a longtime customer bringing a petition into her store, Magazine Mattress and Bed; she thought the paper opposed a planned Wal-Mart, and signed it without reading it. "He said this was against the Wal-Mart," she says.
Mayeux is among a handful of Magazine Street store owners now protesting the petition, trumpeted by HRI as proof that many local merchants would welcome a neighborhood Wal-Mart. Some claim that signatures on HRI's petition are fraudulent, were obtained deceitfully, or were signed by a store's employee and not the owner.
HRI public affairs director Barbara Files says she is distraught by the allegations. "I would not be stupid enough to get anybody's signature except for the owner," she says. "These signatures are not fraudulent, and these signatures were by the shop owners." Files believes some of the signees have switched their public stance, or are claiming they never signed the HRI petition, because they are encountering hostility by neighboring merchants who oppose the planned Wal-Mart.
"Some of these [store owners] are getting harassed by preservationists. They're being threatened because they signed the petition," says Files, who insists she gathered signatures herself and made sure everyone who signed HRI's petition was a shop owner.
"We did everything properly. We would not want to do anything to discredit our company," she says. "If there is anyone on our list who was not the owner of the business, then they lied to me."
HRI's petition reads, in part: "We, the undersigned individual retailers, located on Magazine Street, believe that the introduction of a Wal-Mart Superstore on Tchoupitoulas Street will positively impact our businesses by bringing additional shoppers to our marketplace."
Some merchants, such as Mayeux, say they didn't realize what they were signing. Others, such as furniture store owner James Hooter, claim non-store-owners signed the petition. Hooter's store is represented on the HRI petition twice, and he says neither signature is his. One signature was written by his son; the other by a business partner who signed Hooter's name, he says. "I would never have signed it. [Wal-Mart] is not going to affect what I do, but we've got three neighborhood grocery shops in the area and it's going to kill them."
Some merchants who appear on the HRI document have since signed a "rebuttal" petition circulated by a public-development advocacy group, Citizens for Urban Vision, effectively negating their presence on the HRI petition.
Files acknowledges she gathered names accompanied by the man Mayeux identifies as her client, but says all the store owners they met had known what they were signing. "We wouldn't have let anyone sign it without reading it."
Most Magazine Street entrepreneurs are aware of the proposed development, in which a 217,000-square foot Wal-Mart would be the hub for a nearly $323 million mixed-income housing and business community. HRI insists it needs a retail giant such as Wal-Mart to guarantee success of the project, which would depend on revenue from its "hub" store to pay for the development of over 1,200 mixed-income housing units.
More than a third of the store's 9-cent sales tax would go to a specially created tax increment financing district to help fund the bonds that build the housing units. Instead of paying property tax, Wal-Mart would pay an equal amount to a fund that would support the bonds.
Opinions about the project's effect on local retailers are generally divided into two camps. One maintains that a Wal-Mart would enhance local businesses by drawing shoppers to the area. The other insists that a local Wal-Mart would drain business from small nearby stores such as those on Magazine Street.
Della Graham, a Magazine Street antique shop employee who lives in the area and says she has worked on the street for 20 years, falls squarely into the second camp. She believes HRI obtained as many signatures as possible, by any means necessary, in order to generate a show of support. "I saw the HRI petition about four weeks ago," says Graham, a leading member of Citizens for Urban Vision. "I called my friends on the list and they said, 'Oh my gosh, I didn't mean to be on that' ... and I drafted a petition and I just started circulating it myself."
Graham's version, in part, reads: "I previously signed the petition circulated by HRI (Historic Restoration, Inc.) before I understood the implications to the City of New Orleans of the tax financing proposal. I hereby acknowledge my change of position and remove my name from the HRI petition." (The petition and the names of 170 stores listed as opposing Wal-Mart is available at www.urbanconservancy.org/contents.htm.)
Graham acknowledges she is not a business owner, but "a concerned citizen. ... I know in my heart that Wal-Mart is a bad company."
Working with Graham on the petition issue is Noel Barras, who owns three Magazine Street businesses: two Big Life Toys stores and a clothing shop, Winky's. She says as soon as she saw the HRI petition, she contacted merchants whose stores appeared on it.
Says Barras: "I went to some of the business owners that I know personally and said, 'Are you on this list?' And they said no. You look at the petition and you have the company name and signature, and the signature wouldn't be the owner. ... It's so blatant and appalling."
Files of HRI says she's also appalled, but by what she calls "fanatical" opposition. "It's very disturbing," says Files, who insists that many merchants with whom she spoke "were very receptive to the project; they felt like their businesses would be enhanced ... then the preservationists got to them and jumped all over them for signing my petition. These people are scared to death." -->
CORRECTION: Our Nov. 6 cover story, "Can This Prison Change Its Stripes?" stated that Joseph Ward has been convicted and sentenced to death. Ward has been charged capitally and the Rapides Parish District Attorney's office has said that they intend to seek the death penalty, but Ward has not been convicted. He is expected to go to trial early next year. Gambit Weekly regrets the error.
Later this month, the judge will hear pre-trial motions, including one written by Ward's attorney Clive Stafford-Smith. It asks that the judge bar the death penalty as a possible outcome in this case due to Ward's exposure to abuse and violence while an inmate at Tallulah.
Furthermore, Joseph Ward is featured in Amnesty International's November 2001 report. The organization's Web site www.amnesty.org/actnow notes that international law prohibits the use of the death penalty on defendants who were under 18 at the time of the crime. Amnesty International is urging people to send letters to Rapides Parish Assistant District Attorney Mike Shannon, requesting that the death penalty not be pursued in Ward's case. Shannon reports that he has so far received about 100 such overseas letters and faxes, but that his office is not persuaded by people who "have absolutely no personal knowledge of the crime."