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Toronto Star - 2016-02-20

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A Walmart dies, a town grieves

WORLD WEEKLY

LYDIA DEPILLIS THE WASHINGTON POST

KIMBALL, W.VA.— To hear Mary Francis Matney tell it, Walmart didn’t kill the once-vibrant cluster of shops next to a railway and a creek in this faded old coal town — the disappearance of the mines had pretty well taken care of that. But now that Walmart is leaving, too, as one of 154 U.S. stores the company closed in January, the town might be snuffed out for good. “It makes everyone so downhearted they don’t know what to do,” said Matney, 60, browsing the half-empty shelves of Kimball’s massive Supercenter. Her husband once worked in the coal mines. Now, the couple lives on what little they get from Medicare and Social Security, and with precious few other options she made the hour-and-a-half trip from her home back in the “hollers” once a month to stock up. “It’s like we’re a forgotten bunch of people,” said Matney. “It’s about all there was to look forward to. If we had to go any further, there ain’t no way.” She patted the metal shelves full of half-off merchandise affectionately. “I hate seeing it die. I really do,” she said. “You could always find better stuff here.” And two days later, the store was gone. Indeed, in a place so diminished, Kimball’s Walmart had risen like a vision of bountiful modernity, stocked with anything one could ever need. And its disappearance is typical of the rest of the stores that Walmart announced it was shedding. Headlines reflect similar impacts in communities where Walmarts have closed across the country. In Raymondville, Texas, the disappearance of tax income from Walmart could force city layoffs. In Oriental, N.C., the arrival of a Walmart Express had been the final straw for a local grocery store, leaving the community with few options for food — also the case in Fairfield, Ala., and Winnsboro, S.C. The decision to shutter so many stores at once is unprecedented. Are there any commonalities among the stores targeted for closure? Walmart says financial performance was a primary factor. But here’s one way in which that may have played out geographically: Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has run an analysis of all the Walmarts in the country and says that 89 per cent of those on the closure list were in states with higher-than-average square footage per capita. According to Walmart itself, 95 per cent of the closures are within 15 kilometres of another Walmart. “It’s been part of the way these big retailers have tried to grab market share, by overbuilding markets and creating more retail space than they can support,” Mitchell says. “And, now that we have growing online sales, that overcapacity is going to get quite ugly.” Walmart, which is the largest private employer in West Virginia, took over the building of a former Kmart in Kimball in 2004 to fill a gap between two other towns both about an hour’s drive away. But in January, the massive retailer announced that the revenue in Kimball wasn’t enough to sustain the location, according to McDowell County Commission Chairman Harold McBride. “I think the store didn’t reach their expectations,” McBride says. “It wasn’t real bad but wasn’t up to what they expect out of that size store.” The company didn’t get what it wanted in profits. But the store certainly met many needs of the community. Some are obvious: A second option for shoppers who wanted fresh, affordable food in a place with only one other full-service grocer. And jobs — 140 of them that will be difficult to replace. “That’s a lot of jobs for even the county to absorb,” Kimball Mayor Eddie Patrick says. “They gave them the option to transfer, but if you transfer and you’re travelling an hour to work and back, you’ve got to be making good money to travel all that way.” Walmart’s disappearance will have more subtle ripple effects, such as a drop in traffic to the small neighbouring hotel and gas station and the loss of a place to buy phone cards and hire tax preparation help. It was the main donor to the local food bank, and it contributed $65,000 annually in taxes to the county, most of which went to the school district. At the moment, the county commission is trying to persuade Walmart to donate its old building, which might be used for multiple tenants. In the meantime, McBride sees other potential for growth. The county has a strategy to attract ATV enthusiasts, which might generate some of the tourism income that’s so far flowed toward the northeastern part of the state. But even if the county could attract another big-box store, he’s not sure that’s the right way to go this time. “What we feel like we have to do is go with the smaller businesses and bring enough of those in, and grow with them,” McBride says. “Corporate America, when they set a goal they’re actually losing money if they don’t make that goal. So we feel like we should go with smaller companies, where a profit’s a profit.” For shoppers who had rejoiced when it arrived a decade ago, the closure remains hard to understand. From the number of people in the parking lot every day, the store seemed to have good business. “They’ll never convince me it didn’t make money,” said Phyllis Noe, 62. “I’ve always been fond of Walmart, but they can’t look you in the eye and say they didn’t have good feedback. Maybe it’s just what they do: 10 years and then they leave.” For her granddaughter Hailey Noe, a high-schooler, the Walmart was the last thing that made staying in the immediate area viable. “You want to leave,” she said. “You feel like, what is there for me now?”

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