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story.lead_photo.caption At Waldron Drug, employees have added space and chairs to serve the departing Wal-Mart’s customers. - Photo by Robbie Neiswanger

WALDRON -- The sign outside Waldron Drug offers a helping hand to the stunned residents of this small Arkansas town facing the unsettling news that the local Wal-Mart store is closing next month.

"Welcome Walmart customers."

Inside the store, pharmacy manager Ed Humphrey and his staff were busy filling prescriptions as several residents sat patiently in the waiting area Tuesday. A couple of days earlier, Humphrey said he spent part of Father's Day extending the space to prepare for the influx of customers who were moving their prescriptions from Wal-Mart. He removed one display to open up the space, put in extra carpet to fill bare spots and moved in a few more chairs.

"I'm putting in extra hours," Humphrey said. "But I told my boss, 'I guess it's the health care professional coming out in me.' These people are shell-shocked. So if they can walk in here and know I can take care of them, that's a pretty good reward in my eyes."

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Wal-Mart shook the Waldron community earlier this month when it revealed plans to shutter the store July 14, saying the decision was based on a review process that considers a number of factors like financial performance and its strategic alignment with the company's long-term plan.

The devastating announcement has left Waldron's leaders, local businesses and residents trying to cope with the loss of a store that has been open since 1982. They're searching for solutions to fill the impending retail void and bracing for the potential economic impact that could trickle through the rural town of 3,800 people and its surrounding community.

Waldron Mayor Neil Cherry didn't mask his disappointment with the Bentonville-based retailer Tuesday, saying his first goal was to persuade Wal-Mart to reconsider the decision because of the effect it would have on employment, sales tax revenue and way of life in the town. But the Wal-Mart store -- which has 98 employees in Waldron and is the city's third-largest employer behind Tyson Foods and the local school system -- said the decision is final and will not be reversed.

"I think it's a shame Wal-Mart is leaving," Cherry said. "I'm just personally hurt. I didn't like it when Wal-Mart moved in here. I had a small business at that time, and it hurt us. It put a lot of Waldron businesses out of business. They've accomplished that, now they're going out of business. ... They're not looking at the effect that it's going to have on Waldron, Arkansas."

The store is the only Wal-Mart in Scott County, which has about 10,200 residents, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. At 37,000 square feet, it is classified in Wal-Mart's portfolio as one of about 400 discount stores and is much smaller than supercenters that span roughly 180,000 square feet.

The store doesn't contain the number of items the larger supercenters do, but it has been a popular shopping destination for residents in the area. There are packaged and frozen foods, clothing, toys, kitchen appliances, pet products and other general merchandise. There also is a pharmacy, and a tire and auto center.

Wal-Mart said the decision to close the store came after a "careful and thoughtful review process." A decision to close a similar store in Perry, Okla., was announced the same day. The decision in Waldron now leaves the next-nearest Wal-Mart stores in Booneville, Mena and Greenwood, which are between 20 and 25 miles away.

WALDRON'S OTHER OPTIONS

Waldron still has a Harp's grocery store. There's a Dollar General down the street as well. But residents said losing Wal-Mart will be a blow because of the products and services available under one roof.

"It's going to just be a huge adjustment for Scott County," said Lisa Harrison, who has lived in Waldron for about 20 years. "I don't want to say I don't shop out of town. I do. But I don't make special trips to go shop out of town.

"For everyday, normal household items, to feed my family, I bought it at Wal-Mart. I shop at Dollar General and Harps. But the majority of my money is spent at Wal-Mart."

According to the U.S. Census estimates, nearly 20 percent of Scott County residents are 65 years old or older. In addition, an estimated 20.8 percent of residents live in poverty.

So traveling to another Wal-Mart is not possible for many.

"That's going to be a very big challenge, especially for those that have limited resources or for those that don't have a ride unless a family member takes them," said a resident who declined to provide her name. "You know the elderly, they really depend on Wal-Mart for their drugstore stuff, all their groceries. That's where they go.

"My mom and dad are one of them. They live on a limited income because they're retired. They have tons of prescriptions. They depend on Wal-Mart because they can get them cheaper."

LAST-MINUTE DISCOUNTS

The store remains open for business right now, but the countdown to the final day is evident, beginning with the large blue "store closing" banner that hangs outside on the building. At the entrance, smaller signs list the new store hours -- 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. -- and a 25 percent discount on remaining items.

Inside, shoppers push carts along aisles looking for last-minute deals. Most of the shelves are empty. Meanwhile, employees manage the remaining inventory and help customers, continuing to work through the store's final days.

Three banners made by local schoolchildren hang in the aisles and show the community's appreciation for the 98 Wal-Mart workers who are now looking for new jobs. One of them read: "From the bottom of our hearts thank you for all the wonderful care you have provided our families."

Marsha Nelson, who has worked at the store the past three years, said in a phone interview that the appreciation and outpouring from the community "brings us to tears." She said the past two weeks have been shocking and overwhelming for everyone affiliated with the store as they begin the process of looking for new jobs.

The company is giving each worker an opportunity to apply for positions at other Wal-Mart or Sam's Club locations, but it's not clear how many will transfer. Nelson said there are several who can't because of the distance. Some workers don't have transportation. Others live paycheck to paycheck and are not able to tack on additional travel expenses.

But she said most employees are more concerned about the customers who have depended on the store.

"They're devastated," Nelson said. "They knew they could count on Wal-Mart."

HUNT FOR NEW RETAILERS

Community leaders are working to ease the loss and move forward, including searching for additional businesses to make up for the anticipated loss in sales tax revenue.

Waldron relies on a 1-cent sales tax to help fund services like fire, police and parks, according to City Clerk and Treasurer Sherry Johnston. There's a 1-cent 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-cent tax for sanitation services it shares with Scott County and the nearby city of Mansfield.

Cherry said he is actively recruiting other retail businesses to fill some of the void. While the Wal-Mart building is probably too large for one retailer, he's hoping two or three will take portions of the space.

Cherry said there's one additional hang-up: Wal-Mart leases the property. So the owners of the property must decide whether to sell or lease it to another business.

"The owners of the building, you would think, would be just working right with us or faster than we are to occupy the building," Cherry said.

In the meantime, other businesses in Waldron have stepped in to prepare for the expected swell in customers.

Humphrey, whose Waldron Drug is affiliated with Walgreens, said technicians from Fort Smith now come over three days a week to help with the increased demand. Humphrey said the store fills about 1,300 prescriptions a week, while Wal-Mart has handled about 1,800. Wal-Mart is working with Waldron Drug to help move customers over.

Harps is opening a pharmacy as well, receiving emergency approval for a temporary facility that will open for customers sometime in August. A Harps spokesman said the company is in the planning stages of a remodel for the store that would incorporate a pharmacy on-site, but there is no exact timeline for completion.

"You will see a little bit of transfer of those dollars in the city," said Mervin Jebaraj, interim director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. "But there will probably be somewhat of a drop in the sales tax dollars the city receives."

There's hope that the expansion and expected increase in customers to the remaining stores will result in employment opportunities as well. Cherry said Subway hired at least two employees from the Wal-Mart store and indicated that Dollar General is considering additional workers as well. There's also optimism that the area's largest employer, Tyson, will be able to hire some of the displaced workers, although Cherry said it would have to take place over time.

LOCAL BUSINESS REVIVAL

City officials and several residents hope Wal-Mart's decision will result in the revival of local businesses. There are some in town like a women's clothing boutique, antique store and secondhand shops, but plenty of opportunity for others now that Wal-Mart is moving out. The plea circulating around town last week was "buy local."

"We feel like five years from now we're going to have a more community-based hometown," Johnston said. "That money will be circulating in our community instead of hot-shotting to Bentonville.

"Those things are real positive. It's just going to be painful getting there."

There will be other issues and details the community will need to address as the Wal-Mart store prepares to close. The search for supplies like printer cartridges or fishing equipment will be more complicated. Fundraisers and other charitable efforts that had been led or supported by the local Wal-Mart will likely require new partnerships.

But residents are optimistic that the community is capable of working through the challenges.

"In most situations it's not necessarily the action that defines the situation, it's the reaction," said Jimmy Russell, who owns the Charbroiler restaurant. "We're a very resilient community. I do know that.

"There are a lot of people that are very passionate here and will remain that way."

SundayMonday Business on 06/25/2017

Photo by Robbie Neiswanger
A sign announces the Wal-Mart store in Waldron is closing. Shoppers have until July 14 to make their final purchases.
Photo by Robbie Neiswanger
Waldron Mayor Neil Cherry said he is “personally hurt” that Wal-Mart has decided to close its store in his city.
Photo by Robbie Neiswanger
Waldron residents (clockwise from left) Lisa Harrison, Ann Crossett, Alex Maine, Diane Miller and Jimmy Russell sit in the Charbroiler restaurant and discuss the approaching closure of the town’s Wal-Mart store.

Print Headline: Wal-Mart closing dazes town

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  • johniew39809241638
    June 25, 2017 at 9:18 a.m.

    Walmart is a great company in most respects.

    They employ thousands of people here. Wal-Mart and/or Walton money has funded hundreds of projects here including some of the Walton grandsons pouring money into the local trail system, which run throughout this region. They give money to schools and to numerous charities.

    The Crystal Bridges Museum which initially cost about $1.5 bil to build was funded by Alice Walton and employs dozens of people as well as bringing tourists to the area. It is a world-class museum.

    Walmart does have some practices, which are predatory. One example: Harps, a regional grocery store chain had a store right off the Bentonville square for years. The Walton’s who I believed owned the property wanted to clear out the retailers and they did. They built a Walmart neighborhood market and a parking garage in that location. Several other shops operate in the retail spaces they also built on that site.

    So Harps chose a location on the north side of town near us. It is a large very modern store. We frequent it especially when we only need a few items. And yes we do most of our shopping at the Bentonville Walmart Supercenter.

    So what did Walmart do? They purchased the old Bentonville Bowling Alley that had closed and built a neighborhood market right across the street from the new Harps store.

    I emailed Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart simply asking him why? They weren’t interested in our side of town until Harps relocated to this side. And I did get a reply. I can’t remember exactly what he or his staff wrote but it’s what you would expect.

    Walmart built several smaller neighborhood markets in several of the towns around here only to close them in less than two years. In that process they probably forced a few small businesses to close.

    The article this morning is titled “Wal-Mart closing dazes town.” If nothing else in that article gets your attention this paragraph should:

    The mayor of Waldron said:

    "I think it's a shame Wal-Mart is leaving," Cherry said. "I'm just personally hurt. I didn't like it when Wal-Mart moved in here. I had a small business at that time, and it hurt us. It put a lot of Waldron businesses out of business. They've accomplished that, now they're going out of business. ... They're not looking at the effect that it's going to have on Waldron, Arkansas."

    Now having spent 23 years in the corporate world after retiring from the military I understand that businesses are business. I also understand corporations have to make financial adjustments to stay profitable. I also know I have friends who work for Walmart and are appreciative of having those jobs.

    What I don’t understand is a business model where a corporation moves into a small community, forces small businesses to close and then they decide their store isn’t profitable so they close.

    Walmart corporate executives could care less about those small towns or the people living in those small towns.

  • MaxCady
    June 25, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    It's all about the Benjamins!!

  • RBear
    June 25, 2017 at 5:09 p.m.

    This is part of a continuing trend in retail. The large chains must look at how to compete against each other, driving most of them to the major population centers. The first casualties will be the small towns like Waldron. But, as the article states, there are smaller retail groups who will replace Walmart like Harp's and Dollar General. If you look at DG sales and stock, it's doing quite well now.
    ...
    It follows the trend of population which is moving from the small towns to the urban centers. Retail has to follow the people and Walmart is doing such to stay competitive and be able to compete on the other front, eCommerce.

  • wolfman
    June 25, 2017 at 9:17 p.m.

    Yea it's rare to see a walmart going out of business. But walmart doesn't care. why should it. It came in offered lower prices than the mom and pop stores...folks couldn't resist the walmart prices and they stopped shopping at the local stores. and this is what you get. Just another money hungry corporate giant taking a dump on a town.

  • Delta2
    June 25, 2017 at 10:55 p.m.

    Thankfully, I live in a town too small to attract Walmart's interest. Even when I'm out of town, I avoid Walmart if at all possible. To see Walmart leave a small town, all I can say is "Good riddance".

  • Jfish
    June 26, 2017 at 8:34 a.m.

    Americans love their cheap foreign made products and this is what most big box stores thrive on. Whenever possible I use the smaller stores like Fuller and Sons Hardware which is very competitive on prices and you get great customer service to boot.

  • dunagind
    June 26, 2017 at 12:15 p.m.

    You want great customer service, shop some locally owned. The pharmacist went the extra mile to prepare for the influx of new customers. Who knows, they may need to hire another pharmacist to keep up with the demand. I shop mom and pop stores for the costumer service.

  • mrcharles
    June 26, 2017 at 12:23 p.m.

    People sound like wal mart owed them something . What is good for wal mart is good for wal mart.

    Just as they did when pharmacy came along, put other locals who had been in business for years, them pretty much only game in town. No commie ideas in their heart. Make a buck , isnt that the mantra. All this whimpering about poor people and the other citizens inconveniences , so what , they can just get better jobs and/or move.

    July 4th is coming up, be sure to go to Wal Mart and buy ewe all's flags. Heck they might be even cheaper if you look for one of them foreign made ones. Isnt it a shame that companies and the rich used non-merican countries to make their stuff just to get richer when they were doing just fine. Sounds like someone who I wouldnt trust in a fox hole or jungle trail. Yet travis is right, them their Presidents and founders are highly desired to be collected.

    Was just thinking and pondering and wondering who is that supports offshore money holding, off shore industry , other country workers to build for g-d fearing mericans who fought and who ancestors fought to make america really great not a phrase of no meaning . Something tells me no matter what a party favors that dogma, while their ant farm workers are easily bought off with keepiing their ancient books and specialized , new and improved milita weapons.

    Think George would cry if he saw what the party in control was doing. This closing is a direct policy of that ILK.

  • NewsJunkie01
    June 26, 2017 at 1:26 p.m.

    Another one bites the dust...

  • TheBatt
    June 26, 2017 at 1:53 p.m.

    How many small local businesses did Walmart use predatory tactics to force out of business in that community? And now, abandon them.

    It's not as if the store wasn't turning a profit. It is. But, it isn't at the level the new talking heads in WM upper-management say they want...

    Walmart is not the company of its founder, Sam. They have become a Goliath that has contributed to the destruction of not only family businesses, but to domestic manufacturers and other producers by manipulating the markets and the supply chain.

    Promises of huge, long-term contracts, then when a company "tools up", Walmart demands new terms... which the manufacturer either accepts (which likely means going from profit to loss), or losing the contract (which can mean death).

    But it ok, WM gives back a tiny portion of their massive profits to local causes, so that she's their awful and immoral business practices ok.

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