Small-town busi­nesses bri­dle en­thu­si­asm for Wal-Mart de­but

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Jen Haberkorn

KIL­MARNOCK, Va. — WalMart Stores Inc. threw open its doors in the tiny North­ern Neck town of Kil­marnock on Oct. 24 to fan­fare by lo­cal res­i­dents tout­ing the re­tailer’s low prices and the con­ve­nience of hav­ing a one-stop shop­ping des­ti­na­tion in town.

The world’s largest re­tailer was greeted by the Lan­caster County High School march­ing band and color guard and an early-morn­ing crowd that Wal-Mart es­ti­mated at about 600, which is a lot con­sid­er­ing the pop­u­la­tion of the town is 1,244.

“What’s not to be ex­cited about?” said Ellen Hol­lows, a res­i­dent of nearby Reedville who at­tended the grand open­ing. “It’s a cen­tral lo­ca­tion where we can come to get a lot of things in­stead of go­ing to [other Wal-Mart stores in] Glouces­ter, Tap­pa­han­nock or Rich­mond.”

Wal-Mart was the buzz of Kil­marnock. For many lo­cal res­i­dents, the open­ing was a long time com­ing. They are tired of mak­ing the 30-mile trek to other Wal-Mart stores for prod­ucts they can’t find in town, such as small ap­pli­ances, tow­els and in­ex­pen­sive cloth­ing.

For busi­ness own­ers, Wal-Mart sig­nals stiff com­pe­ti­tion that is tough to beat on price. They’re con­cerned that Wal-Mart could se­ri­ously cut their mar­gins or even drive them out of busi­ness.

Some peo­ple worry Wal-Mart and the other big-box chain stores that typ­i­cally fol­low Wal-Mart will change the char­ac­ter of their town.

Wal-Mart is mov­ing into a quiet coastal town of mostly mom-and­pop shops where peo­ple know their neigh­bors. The com­mu­nity is largely com­posed of re­tirees — many from North­ern Vir­ginia — but the pop­u­la­tion swells with tourists in the sum­mer. Shops close at 5 p.m. and restau­rants close by 11 p.m., even on week­ends.

The Wal-Mart Su­per­center fea­tures a few firsts for Kil­marnock, in­clud­ing a sushi bar with food made daily and a kiosk to down­load 88cent songs and burn a CD.

Mar­ian S. Ran­some, 79, made the trip from nearby Lively to at­tend Wal-Mart’s grand open­ing. She said she “couldn’t wait” for the store’s ar­rival be­cause of its low prices.

“A head of let­tuce in town is [$3 for two]. It’s 99 cents here,” she said. “Why in the hick­ens wouldn’t I buy it here?”

“I think it’s great, but I feel for the small busi­nesses,” said Kil­marnock res­i­dent Kathy San­ders, who bought a watch shortly af­ter Wal-Mart opened.

Small busi­nesses, fear­ing WalMart will take away some of their cus­tomers, have re­sponded by cut­ting back in cat­e­gories where WalMart com­petes. The Doll House stopped or­ders of dolls that WalMart car­ries; Sports Cen­tre changed its fo­cus from sports gear and ac­ces­sories to team cloth­ing and tro­phies; Noah’s Ark bi­cy­cle and vac­uum shop re­duced re­tail and pumped up its re­pair busi­ness.

Some shop­pers say they’ll still sup­port lo­cally owned stores.

Ms. San­ders said when she was strug­gling fi­nan­cially about 15 years ago, the owner of the Tri-Star gro- cery store helped her out.

“He took $20 from his own pocket and gave it to me to go gro­cery shop­ping,” she said, adding that she re­paid the own­ers as soon as she could. “They’re al­ways go­ing to have my busi­ness.”

Wal-Mart re­peat­edly promised that it will be a good cor­po­rate neigh­bor.

At its grand open­ing, Wal-Mart pre­sented the North­ern Neck Free Clinic with a $10,000 grant. Eigh­teen other com­mu­nity groups re­ceived a com­bined $24,000 in grants.

Kil­marnock busi­ness own­ers say lo­cal sports teams and church groups of­ten rely on lo­cal busi­nesses for their fundrais­ing ef­forts. Small­busi­ness own­ers ex­pressed con­cern that Wal-Mart might only cut large checks to a few or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Store man­ager Jim Fryear said he plans to have his store do­nate to small causes in ad­di­tion to mak­ing the larger quar­terly com­mu­nity grants. His store has al­ready raised $1,000 from em­ployee do­na­tions for a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer whose house caught on fire.

“We’ll con­tinue to do that in the fu­ture,” he said. “We’re go­ing to be part of the com­mu­nity. All they have to do is ask.”

Mr. Fryear made a per­sonal pledge to be­come a part of the com­mu­nity. He lives in West Point, which is about 30 miles away, but has be­come a mem­ber of four lo­cal busi­ness and com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions, he said.

Kil­marnock has al­ready felt WalMart’s im­pact in other ways, as well.

The store has hired about 250 em­ploy­ees and Mr. Fryear plans to add about 50 more. He said 95 per­cent of his em­ploy­ees are from the North­ern Neck area and 5 per­cent were trans­ferred from other WalMart stores. All full- and part-time em­ploy­ees re­ceive ben­e­fits, he said.

The town po­lice de­part­ment re­cently added two full-time of­fi­cers, boost­ing it to six full-time of­fi­cers, in part be­cause of the Wal-Mart and the ad­di­tional peo­ple it is ex­pected to bring to Kil­marnock from nearby towns.

Po­lice Chief Mike Bedell said he ex­pects petty crimes could in­crease but doubts there will be se­ri­ous crime as­so­ci­ated with the store.

The town of Kil­marnock and the Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion in­stalled a stop­light — the fifth on Main Street — in front of the Wal-Mart to con­trol traf­fic in the area.

The light has drawn the ire of some res­i­dents on nearby Hawthorne Street. They are go­ing to have to fight in­com­ing Wal-Mart traf­fic to make a left turn into their neigh­bor­hood.

“Ev­ery­body is up­set about [the stop­light],” said res­i­dent William C. Robins. “But you can’t stop progress.”

Astrid Riecken / The Wash­ing­ton Times

Blends right in with the neigh­bor­hood? The march­ing band of Lan­caster County High School trum­peted the grand open­ing of a Wal-Mart Su­per­center in Kil­marnock, Va.

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