Walmart’s closures leave gaping voids throughout small-town America

Five days after the store closing in Kimball, W.V., Guy Looney was hired to paint over the Walmart sign with black paint. He was also part of a crew that removed the large letters from the store building. The store closed its doors on Jan. 28, the latest blow to a struggling coal town. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson.

To hear Mary Francis Matney tell it, Walmart didn’t kill the once-vibrant cluster of shops next to a railroad and a creek in the faded old coal town of Kimball, W.Va. – the disappearance of the mines had pretty well taken care of that already. 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, leaning on her cart, which contains a dustbuster and door crack insulation. 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, her long gray hair loosely clipped into a bun. “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.”

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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, North Carolina, 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, Alabama; and Winnsboro, South Carolina. A Washington Post analysis of the stores on the closure list shows that they are in relatively lower-income, less-densely-populated census tracts.

For much of Walmart’s history, the narrative about its role in small-town America has been the opposite: Big boxes plunked down in the exurbs created black holes for shoppers, sucking the life out of main streets that couldn’t compete with Walmart’s market-bending price power.

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The retailer expanded by filling the gaps between its existing stores until it saturated an area, and then creeping out from the its Midwestern base into urban markets on the coasts. It moved into groceries and smaller formats to counter the threat of dollar stores, closing facilities occasionally to open larger ones nearby.

The decision to shutter so many stores at once is unprecedented. The cuts include the abandonment of Walmart’s 3-year-old “Express” convenience store pilot, as well as a few planned future locations, such as two sites for which it had signed leases in Washington’s underserved neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

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 percent of those on the closure list were in states with higher-than-average square footage per capita. According to Walmart itself, 95 percent of the closures are within 10 miles 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,” Mitchell says. “And, now that we have growing online sales, that overcapacity is going to get quite ugly.”

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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. It did so – but in January, the massive retailer announced its “sharpened focus on portfolio management” and that the revenue in Kimball wasn’t quite 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 traveling an hour to work and back, you’ve got to be making good money to travel all that way.”

But Walmart’s disappearance will have more subtle ripple effects, such as a drop in traffic to the small neighboring 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.

For shoppers in the area surrounding Kimball who had rejoiced when it arrived a decade ago, the closure is 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, who bought her sewing and craft materials there. “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 with long hair and heavy eyeliner, the Walmart was the last thing that made staying in the immediate area even viable.

“You want to leave,” she said. “You feel like, what is there for me now?”

At the moment, the county commission is trying to persuade Walmart to donate its old building, which might be used for multiple tenants. Asked if that might be in the cards, Walmart – which has a website for disposing of its excess real estate – gave no concrete answers.

“This is an ongoing process that has just begun and we’re working with local elected officials and potential buyers so we can do what we can to both expedite the process and help communities if possible,” spokesman Brian Nick wrote in an email.

In the meantime, Commissioner 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.”