Wal-Mart gone, Wal­dron lives on

Scott County town mourns, but looks to weather the loss


WAL­DRON — Mayor Neil Cherry on Tues­day urged Wal­dron res­i­dents to be­gin mov­ing past the news that has dom­i­nated con­ver­sa­tions over the past month.

The small town’s Wal­Mart store, which had been a fix­ture for nearly 35 years, was one of its top em­ploy­ers and a key source of sales-tax rev­enue, had of­fi­cially closed its doors four days ear­lier. So Cherry told about 150 peo­ple gath­ered for a com­mu­nity meet­ing that it was im­por­tant for ev­ery­one to take the step of let­ting Wal-Mart go.

“We need to get that be­hind us,” Cherry said. “We need to for­get about it and we need to move for­ward from here. Wal-Mart is gone. We might as well just for­get it. So let’s think about what we can do to progress and move for­ward from here.”

The next step was the theme of the wide-rang­ing meet­ing, which was held at Wal­dron High School. Of­fi­cials and other in­vited guests spent two hours talk­ing about the clos­ing and its eco­nomic im­pact. They also out­lined ways in which Wal­dron, Scott County and oth­ers could help lift the com­mu­nity out of the dis­ap­point­ment.

The gath­er­ing came nearly a month af­ter Wal­Mart shocked Wal­dron with news of plans to shut­ter the 37,000-square-foot store off U.S. 71. The re­tailer said the de­ci­sion was based on a review process that con­sid­ers a num­ber of fac­tors, such as fi­nan­cial per­for­mance and strate­gic align­ment with the com­pany’s long-term plan.

The store was the only Wal-Mart in Scott County, which has about 10,200 res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to U.S.

Cen­sus es­ti­mates. While there are other re­tail­ers like Harp’s, Dol­lar Gen­eral and a Wal­greens-pow­ered phar­macy that con­tinue to op­er­ate in Wal­dron, the town was heav­ily de­pen­dent on Wal-Mart for food, gen­eral mer­chan­dise, phar­macy and other ser­vices.

“Wal-Mart’s clos­ing has af­fected ev­ery­body here,” said James Forbes, county judge for Scott County .

Wal­dron won’t know what the clos­ing means from an eco­nomic stand­point un­til Oc­to­ber, when the first salestax check that won’t in­clude col­lec­tion from the re­tailer ar­rives. City Clerk and Trea­surer Sherry John­ston said “that will tell the tale” of Wal­dron’s chal­lenge.

Last month, John­ston said the city re­lies on a 1 per­cent sales tax to help fund ser­vices like fire, po­lice and parks. There’s a 1 per­cent sales tax for rev­enue bonds that were ap­proved last year for water and sewer equip­ment, as well. Wal­dron also re­ceives 40 per­cent of a 1 per­cent tax for san­i­ta­tion ser­vices it shares with Scott County and the nearby city of Mans­field.

John­ston did pro­vide her best es­ti­mate last week, pro­ject­ing the city likely would have col­lected roughly $577,000 on a 1 per­cent sales tax this year if Wal-Mart re­mained in busi­ness. She an­tic­i­pates that fig­ure could drop to about $500,000, which will af­fect a gen­eral fund that cov­ers ser­vices.

“When a busi­ness closes, it has an im­pact,” said Mark Peter­son, an eco­nomic and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment pro­fes­sor with the University of Arkansas’ Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion Ser­vice. “It de­presses the econ­omy. What’s im­por­tant is to have ac­tions, ac­tiv­i­ties and strate­gies that can boost the econ­omy.”

Of­fi­cials are work­ing on plans to make up for the ex­pected loss, con­tact­ing ex­ist­ing busi­nesses to see if they’ll con­sider ex­pand­ing their foot­print and re­cruit­ing oth­ers to in Wal­dron.

Cherry told res­i­dents that Fam­ily Dol­lar has ex­pressed in­ter­est. There’s hope Dol­lar Gen­eral could ex­pand. Cherry even took a res­i­dent’s ad­vice and called Costco, but the com­pany in­formed him the city was too small to con­sider a store.

There is one is­sue in find­ing some­one quickly. The build­ing is not owned by Wal-Mart, which is un­der lease un­til the end of the year. The own­ers have not de­cided whether they will sell or lease the build­ing, but John­ston be­lieves their goal is to fill the va­cancy as soon as pos­si­ble.

“I do be­lieve the own­ers are go­ing to want that rev­enue and work with who­ever to get a re­tailer,” John­ston said. “That’s the goal I think we all have in com­mon.”

Eric Bassinger, an eco­nomic and busi­ness man­ager with AEP/SWEPCO, said he has worked nu­mer­ous times with towns that have ex­pe­ri­enced store clo­sures. There are two keys to find­ing new ten­ants for those va­cant build­ings — hav­ing an ac­tive, lo­cal ef­fort to fill it and the will­ing­ness of the own­ers to work with the com­mu­nity to sell it.

“If both of those in­gre­di­ents are there, you’ve got a fight­ing chance,” Bassinger said. “If one or both parts are not there, that’s usu­ally the build­ings that don’t get filled.”

Re­tail­ers in town are work­ing to pro­vide ad­di­tional ser­vices now that Wal-Mart is gone.

Harps rep­re­sen­ta­tives said the com­pany is keep­ing the shelves stocked, work­ing with ven­dors and adding new items. The com­pany also has hired 19 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing 12 from Wal-Mart.

Harps has com­mit­ted to build a phar­macy in Wal­dron, as well. Robert Acord, direc­tor of the com­pany’s phar­macy op­er­a­tions, said a tem­po­rary phar­macy housed in a trailer should be open to the pub­lic by Aug. 7. A per­ma­nent struc­ture also is in the plan­ning phases.

Sev­eral other strate­gies that could help the town han­dle Wal-Mart’s clos­ing also were dis­cussed at the meet­ing, in­clud­ing the im­por­tance of shop­ping at lo­cal busi­nesses and the im­pact of down­town re­vi­tal­iza­tion. Of­fi­cials are op­ti­mistic tourism can play a big­ger role in Wal­dron’s fu­ture with more vis­i­bil­ity, high­light­ing out­door

The gath­er­ing came nearly a month af­ter Wal-Mart shocked Wal­dron with news of plans to shut­ter the 37,000-square-foot store off U.S. 71. The re­tailer said the de­ci­sion was based on a review process that con­sid­ers a num­ber of fac­tors, such as fi­nan­cial per­for­mance and strate­gic align­ment with the com­pany’s long-term plan.

op­por­tu­ni­ties in the nearby Oua­chita Na­tional For­est or events like the Turkey Track Blue­grass Fes­ti­val.

Al­co­hol sales in the dry county are be­ing con­sid­ered. John­ston said there has been an over­whelm­ing num­ber of res­i­dents stress­ing al­co­hol sales to city of­fi­cials as a po­ten­tial source of rev­enue. A com­mit­tee will meet to look at the op­tion on Aug. 24.

“I have faith we’re go­ing to over­come,” said Mar­sha Nel­son, who worked at the Wal­dron Wal-Mart for three years. “It is dev­as­tat­ing. It’s over­whelm­ing. But we’ll get our wits about us.”

Nel­son said it’s “sad” to drive by the va­cant build­ing. A blue banner that read “store clos­ing” dur­ing the liq­ui­da­tion sale has been re­placed by one that reads “store closed.” The Wal-Mart sign also had been pulled down, leav­ing noth­ing but the out­line of the let­ters and the com­pany’s spark logo.

The clos­ing af­fected 98 work­ers, who are be­ing paid by the com­pany through Aug. 18. Some have trans­ferred to the near­est stores in places like Booneville and Green­wood. Oth­ers have de­cided not to con­tinue with the com­pany be­cause they were un­able — or un­will­ing — to travel to work at stores that are 20 or 30 min­utes away.

The Arkansas De­part­ment of Work­force Ser­vices held a job fair Fri­day for the dis­placed work­ers in Wal­dron. Nel­son, who trans­ferred to the Wal-Mart in Booneville but is first work­ing at the Green­wood store as it un­der­goes re­mod­el­ing, said the hard­est part has been the sep­a­ra­tion for many.

“In a small store like that you’re fam­ily,” Nel­son said. “… We had our din­ner and the city came and told us good­bye. It’s the feel­ing of los­ing friends and fam­ily. Some will be in other stores, but some you may never see again.”

While Nel­son and other res­i­dents agreed with of­fi­cials that it is time for Wal­dron to move on, some con­tin­ued to ex­press frus­tra­tion over the clos­ing and the lin­ger­ing ef­fect.

Roy Hopp­meyer, owner of Wild­horse Gun, Pawn and Auto, ques­tioned Wal-Mart’s cor­po­rate con­science and said there should be “more to busi­ness than profit.” He said the loss of Wal-Mart, and ev­ery­thing it pro­vided, cre­ates a big chal­lenge for the city.

“It’s go­ing to be tough,” Hopp­meyer said. “But we’ll see what Wal­dron is made of.”

Rep. Mar­cus Rich­mond, R-Har­vey, told peo­ple gath­ered for last week’s meet­ing that it will take a group ef­fort to “fix the prob­lem” that has been cre­ated by Wal-Mart’s de­par­ture.

But he was also en­cour­aged by the ef­forts that are un­der­way.

“Wal-Mart gave us a sucker punch right in the back of the head,” Rich­mond said. “But Wal­dron, Ark., still has a pulse. The rea­son why I know this is I can see you here look­ing to do some­thing.”


Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/ROB­BIE NEISWANGER

The streets of down­town Wal­dron were empty Tues­day af­ter­noon as peo­ple gath­ered at the high school to dis­cuss how to cope with the closure of Wal-Mart. “Wal-Mart gave us a sucker punch right in the back of the head,” said Rep. Mar­cus Rich­mond. “But Wal­dron, Ark., still has a pulse.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/ROB­BIE NEISWANGER

The Wal-Mart sign in Wal­dron has been pulled down, leav­ing be­hind the out­line of the let­ters and the com­pany’s logo. The store closed July 15.

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