The Town That Lost Its Walmart

December 26, 2019 0 By HearthstoneYarns

EDNA, Texas — Early on the morning of June 20, 2018, Joe Hermes got a call from an executive in Walmart’s corporate offices. The caller was breaking some bad news: After 36 years, Walmart was closing its Edna store.

Hermes, who had been mayor of this small Texas city for about as long as the Walmart had been open, asked the man if he was joking.

“It was like getting hit by a bomb,” he recalled.

Walmart was Edna’s engine — one of its largest employers, a big taxpayer, a 24-hour social hub in a community of about 5,700 people surrounded by rice fields, ranches and grassland. The store, according to many patrons and employees, seemed successful, which made its closing even more alarming. Maybe Walmart knew something about Edna, or its economy, that the residents did not.

Case studies and books have examined what happens to a community when a Walmart muscles in, how the retailer uses its enormous leverage to lower prices and undercut competitors. But less has been said about what happens when Walmart suddenly packs up and leaves.

Edna, it turns out, was able to pull through in ways that may have made the city stronger.

The closing of the Edna Walmart is not a story about a retailer struggling to adjust to the e-commerce revolution. Nationally, Walmart has achieved some of its best sales growth in years, transforming its Supercenters into digital retailing meccas, where shelf-scanning robots roam the aisles and shoppers idling in the parking lot can order avocados on their phones and have them delivered to their cars.

But the Edna store, a much smaller format built in 1982, did not offer many of those services. And with several Supercenters within roughly 25 miles, Walmart no longer needed Edna. Walmart declined to say exactly why the company left town.

A spokesman said such decisions were “based on a number of factors, including the financial performance of the store and whether we have other stores nearby that can best serve our customers.” The company offered to relocate many of the Edna store’s roughly 90 employees and transfer its customers’ prescriptions to other stores.

Edna is a proud place. A downtown theater glows with rainbow lights and the tower on top of the building spells out the city’s name high above a ticket booth covered in cobwebs. The theater has not shown movies regularly for years, though its new owner has told residents he plans to start screenings soon.

American flags fly along Main Street, remnants of a policy requiring them until an “honorable peace” had been achieved in Vietnam, Hermes said, or all the troops had come home.

Still, with Walmart leaving, Edna’s residents worried about where they would buy their medication; what would happen to the store’s employees; how the city would make up for the lost sales tax revenue.

On the week the closing was announced, Andrew Schroer, the pastor at Redeemer Lutheran, one of the city’s 26 churches, tried to comfort his congregation in a sermon, as well as in the regular newspaper column he writes in several Texas newspapers.

“Don’t worry when the local Walmart closes,” wrote Schroer, who moved to Edna from Miami in 2003 and has turned down nearly a dozen church assignments to stay here.

“God will find a way to provide what you need,” Schroer wrote of the store’s closing. “You will live through it. You will live beyond it.”

It is a roughly 100-mile drive to Edna from Houston. On Lloyd Bentsen Memorial Highway, two weeks before Christmas, the big-city sprawl gives way to open fields lying brown and empty, like a drab patchwork quilt.

Edna appears after crossing a man-made lake and is centered on a business district that includes a nail salon, a flower shop, the “Hot Bonds” bail bonds office, several empty storefronts and the county jail. A few weeks ago, the city held its Christmas parade, called “Miracle on Main Street,” along this route.

The town was founded in 1882 and named after the daughter of an Italian count, who came to Texas to build a railroad stretching from Mexico to New York. Two nearby towns are named after the count’s other daughters, Inez and Louise.

The count imported hundreds of Italian laborers and fed them, according to a history of Jackson County, largely with macaroni. The railroad was nicknamed the Macaroni line. But the count left the railroad after laying only about 90 miles of track.

One hundred years later, another entrepreneur arrived — this time in a prop plane.

He was tall, wearing work boots and a blue denim jacket and leaning up against a twin-engine Cessna at the Edna airport, recalled Richard Browning, an Edna resident and former mayor, who had just landed his own plane.

The man introduced himself as Sam Walton and said he owned a chain of discount stores called Walmart. Walton had flown in because he was looking to build a store in Edna. Walton told Browning he needed a ride into town.

“I thought he was a cattleman,” said Browning, who is now 85.

After pushing his plane into his hangar, Browning drove Walton to a local real-estate office and dropped him off.

The Walmart, store No. 474, soon opened on a large lot next to the highway exit.

It quickly became the place to shop for appliances, clothing, children’s shoes and Christmas trees. Eventually, it added a pharmacy and then groceries. By the 1990s, many of the city’s small clothing and food stores had trouble competing with Walmart’s low prices.

For those who worked in the Walmart, the experience could be mixed. Most of the employees were full time, but a number were part time, and, for them, some benefits were limited. For many, the job could be rewarding and less physically taxing than working in the plastics plants, the area’s largest employers.

Summer Webster, who worked in the automotive department and met her husband at the store, said she had spent much of her day talking with customers. “I thought that was a good thing,” she said.

Everyone has a story about the store. There was a mother whose son suffered from mysteriously high fevers. She would run to Walmart to pick up ibuprofen and a Thomas the Tank Engine toy to cheer him up.

A young woman with a kidney transplant took comfort knowing the pharmacy was only a short drive from her house. A city councilman walked the aisles on his lunch break not to shop, but to talk and blow off steam. The owner of a downtown workshop that makes custom coffins picked up art supplies in the middle of the night.

And then the store was gone.

Chris Lundstrom, the editor and publisher of The Jackson County Herald-Tribune, Edna’s weekly newspaper, recalled how her newsroom went silent the morning Walmart called to say the store was closing.

“I let out this big gasp, ” Lundstrom said. “Like someone had died.” Then she quickly went to work, publishing the story on the newspaper’s Facebook page so as not to be scooped by competitors.

Lance Smiga, the chief financial officer of the 25-bed hospital and current mayor, asked a colleague, “How are we going to recruit doctors to come to Edna, when we can’t even keep a Walmart?”

Billy Storz, 55, who works in a plastics plant, called Walmart to say how the store closing would hurt the community. “I just wanted my voice to be heard,” he said. “But it didn’t matter if every person in this town called. The decision had already been made.”

So Edna tightened its belt and plotted a way forward. Bracing for a drop in sales-tax revenue, city leaders cut road repair and began a “Buy Local” campaign.

Edna Auto Supply started carrying items Walmart used to sell like ammunition, toasters and Christmas trees.

Lundstrom bought notebooks and pens at the Walmart Supercenter in Victoria, and resold them at the newspaper offices, which double as an office supply store.

A Family Dollar opened up across the street from the Dollar General, which remodeled and added items.

The new Edna Pharmacy celebrated its grand opening in April offering traditional Ethiopian coffee and snacks, a nod to the store owner’s family heritage, said Lori Hernandez, who works there.

This month, an Alamo Lumber, a family-owned chain based in San Antonio, opened at the site of the former Walmart. The store has brightly lit aisles stacked with PVC pipes and chain saws, and smells of freshly cut wood. Eleven people work there.

“It is really nice to have them,” Lundstrom said. “But it’s not the same as Walmart.”

Walmart has relocated about half of the 90 employees who worked in Edna to other area stores. Not all of them have stayed with the company.

Eric Wade, 35, took a job unloading trucks at a Supercenter about 40 miles away, but he quit after only a few months. He felt the huge store lacked camaraderie among the employees. He now works at Caterpillar manufacturing excavators.

Some former workers from the Edna store have told friends that the drive to their new jobs has been wearing on their cars and the cost of gas was eating into their wages.

A few have ended up finding work in Edna. Aubrey Garcia, 25, who used to work in the Walmart pharmacy, now delivers flowers for a shop downtown. Webster, the chatty employee in the automotive department, checks people into the exercise room at the hospital.

Many Edna residents say they refuse to shop at Walmart ever again. But others admit that they often drive to shop in the Supercenters in larger towns.

This fall, Edna received a pleasant surprise. Sales tax revenue did not drop the way city officials feared it would after Walmart left. To many, the numbers showed that Edna’s retail stores had filled the void.

“People learned they need to shop at home,” said Hermes, the former mayor.

The revenue numbers also likely include the purchases Edna residents made on Amazon and other large e-commerce sites. Neither the state nor the city breaks out how much was spent online versus in local stores. So Edna may never know for sure what drove the rebound in retail sales after Walmart left.

“From my perspective,” said Schroer, the pastor, “God provided. I truly believe that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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