ONE DAY LAST week, staffers for Tucson city councilman Steve Leal got a call from a Home Depot public relations executive in Los Angeles, inviting Leal to a meeting with a Home Depot vice president.
The staffers relayed the message to their boss, who asked them to find out the vice president's name. "They (Home Depot) can't expect me to go to a meeting and not tell me the name of the person I'm meeting with," Leal says.
Well, oddly enough, at first the Home Depot people didn't want to reveal that information, according to the councilman.
Furthermore, they balked when Leal announced he'd be bringing a couple of local citizens to the meeting. Leal is a fervent believer in citizen participation.
After some back and forth, Leal recalls, "It turned out they wanted me to meet with about five executives.
"They said they wanted to tell me what their game plan for Tucson was," the councilman says. "And they didn't want mere citizens hearing what they felt were their trade secrets."
He told them to go ahead and meet, but it was going to be without him.
"They bring five people and I can't bring anybody?" he says. "Who the hell do they think they are?"
Unfortunately for Home Depot, it was more than a mere rhetorical question for Leal, who is something of a social philosopher.
And he's nothing if not creative when it comes to civic issues.
So he actually began thinking about just who the hell Home Depot thinks they are. And, just as importantly, he wondered what this gargantuan corporation, which nets roughly $5 million a day in the U.S., would like the citizens they hold in such contempt to think they are.
A hardware store? The average Home Depot could hold a dozen traditional hardware stores and still have room for a good-sized lumber yard. They have more paint and chemicals than many manufacturing plants
And then it hit him.
"I called city staff," Leal says, "and I asked them what the standard zoning is for a factory that makes paints and chemicals."
Heavy-duty industrial, they told him.
"And then I asked them what the zoning would be for a hardware store."
And they said, "Oh shit," or words to that effect, meaning the City of Tucson has never looked at Home Depot as anything but a hardware store, much like any mom-and-pop business, or the little Ace place down the block.
But the gargantuan Home Depot store and a mom-and-pop are orders of magnitude apart. For one thing, Home Depot has more flammable, poisonous chemicals on its shelves than many of the manufacturing companies that churn out the stuff.
Imagine living in El Encanto, Colonia Solana, El Montevideo, or any number of densely populated old neighborhoods around El Con, where Home Depot is fighting to put in its "flagship" Tucson outlet. Imagine the evacuation nightmare if a mammoth store full of paint, paint thinner, lumber, pesticides and God knows what other compounds were to catch fire, as at least one Home Depot already has in Arizona.
"Gee," Leal says, "maybe it's time we updated the zoning and fire codes in this town to take into consideration the changing nature of retail in our society."
You said a mouthful, councilman.
And while you're at it, maybe you could outlaw all those annoying PR flacks, too?