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.”
TAKING UP THE SLACK JOB FAIR
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.”
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.