A Wal­mart dies, a town grieves

Toronto Star - - 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,”

“It makes ev­ery­one so down­hearted they don’t know what to do. It’s like we’re a for­got­ten bunch of peo­ple.” MARY FRAN­CIS MAT­NEY ON WAL­MART’S CLO­SURE IN KIM­BALL, W.VA.

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?”

MICHAEL S. WIL­LIAMSON PHO­TOS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Wal­mart in Kim­ball, W.Va., be­came a vi­sion of boun­ti­ful moder­nity af­ter the town lost its coal mines. For shop­pers who re­joiced when it opened a decade ago, the clo­sure is harsh.

The clo­sure forces Kim­ball res­i­dents to travel to out­side of town to shop. A store in neigh­bour­ing Welch doesn’t of­fer the same va­ri­ety or low prices as Wal­mart.

The store closed its doors Jan. 28.

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