Bracing for Life After Walmart

Shoppers prepare for Walmart’s final days. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

Shoppers prepare for Walmart’s final days. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

WINNSBORO (Jan. 22, 2016) – With the announcement last week that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. plans to shutter 154 stores nationwide, including its Walmart Express store at 721 Highway 321 Bypass S. in Winnsboro, local leaders have been scrambling for a plan to fill the enormous retail gap that will be left by the closing, or perhaps delay or even hold off for good the Jan. 28 closing date.

“The thing that is paramount in everyone’s mind is getting those people placed who are losing these jobs,” Terry Vickers, President of the Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce said.

Brian Nick, Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. said approximately 300 employees would be affected by the Winnsboro closing. Employees would be paid 60 days beyond Feb. 10, Nick said. Employees who qualify for severance pay (full- and part-time employees who have been with the company for more than one year) may begin receiving that pay after the 60 days has expired, he said. Some employees may be relocated to other stores, Nick said.

Downtown Renaissance?

Big box retailers can have a devastating effect on Main Street, U.S.A., particularly in small, rural communities.

According to a 2010 study by the Center for Community Planning and Development at Hunter College in New York, Walmart kills three local jobs for every two jobs it creates. A 2004 study by Pennsylvania State University found that U.S. counties with a Walmart suffer an increase in poverty over time compared to counties without a Walmart. And a 1997 study by Iowa State University found that small towns can lose half of their retail trade within 10 years of a Walmart opening in their community.

When Walmart opened its doors in Winnsboro in 1998, it quickly became the biggest kid on the block, drawing even more traffic away from Congress Street and onto the 321 Bypass. With its closing, a retail void opens that Vickers sees as an opportunity for downtown.

Bringing downtown back to life has long been a goal of the Chamber. Now there is considerable impetus to do so. For the transition to be successful, both merchants and consumers will have to adapt.

“We’re looking for things to service us when we lose Walmart,” Vickers said. “We’ve talked to the hardware store (Winnsboro Builders Supply, 340 S. Vanderhorst St.) and the Butcher’s Block (324 S. Congress St.) about the fact that they could see more business. We’ve asked them to take a look at their inventory and keep stock of what people will be looking for.

“The main thing is for our citizens to look here first,” Vickers continued. “And if there’s something that you don’t like about a business, make suggestions.”

Downtown merchants, Vickers said, may have to rethink how they have traditionally done business. In Winnsboro, she said, practically everything except the CVS Pharmacy and the Bi-Lo closes shop by 6 p.m. And some still observe that old Southern tradition of closing at lunch on Wednesdays.

“We’re definitely going to need to look at store business hours,” she said. “If a business is going to be competitive, they have to structure their hours so they are convenient to customers.”

Businesses may also have to consider adding staff, she said, and breaking them up into shifts in order to cater to customers who can only shop after 6 p.m.

A United Front

Filling the gap left by Walmart cannot be the Chamber’s cross to bear alone. If downtown is truly going to be the next destination for Winnsboro shoppers, it is going to take a joint effort between merchants, the Chamber, the Town of Winnsboro and County Council. At the very least.

For starters, Vickers said, downtown is going to have to look and feel like the place to be. Toward that end, she said, additional lighting may be necessary, particularly well-lighted parking areas. An expanded police presence also wouldn’t hurt, “so people can feel safe and relaxed shopping downtown after hours,” Vickers said.

The Town has done an excellent job, Vickers said, on downtown’s landscaping, and she hopes that can be expanded in the future. The walking trail on Mt. Zion Green is paved now, she said, and the growing monument park there has added an attraction for the downtown area.

During Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy addressed the loss of Walmart in his closing remarks.

“It certainly will have a detrimental impact on the quality of life here in Fairfield County,” Gaddy said. “Hopefully we will be able to find some retailers to come in and fill the gap and the large void that Walmart is leaving us.”

After the meeting, Gaddy told The Voice that additional monetary support for the Chamber may be one of the things Council looks at when budget talks ramp up in March.

“I’m sure that our downtown development folks will be talking with the merchants to try to see if we can help them in any way to enhance their business,” Gaddy added.

The County’s role, meanwhile, remains unclear. Vickers said she had not yet spoken with the County, and our phone calls to Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) were not returned at press time.

Can it be Undone?

The Winnsboro location is one of only three S.C. Walmart stores to call it quits by the end of the month. Gray Court in Laurens County, and Pacolet in Spartanburg County are the other two. Worldwide, 269 locations are going out of business, putting 10,000 out of work in the U.S. and 16,000 across the globe.

State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) told The Voice this week that he had spoken with Gov. Nikki Haley and S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt about a possible plan of action.

“We’re meeting with Wal-Mart next week,” Coleman said, “to see if they may be willing to reverse their decision. And if not, we want to do everything we can to get people who will be losing their jobs into new positions.”

If a stay of execution is off the table, Coleman said the next concern was the physical building itself.

“Will they let someone else come in and use it,” Coleman said, “or will they tie it up and let it remain empty?”

And if the commercial winds blow back toward downtown, Coleman said he would have to have discussions with Hitt to determine if there were any state money that could help kick-start Congress Street.

Lemons to Lemonade

As she said in her letter to the editor this week (page 2), Vickers hopes to turn the sour news of the Walmart closing into a refreshing future for downtown. And she is confident that the building blocks are in place.

“We have the makings,” Vickers said. “We have two drug stores (CVS on the Bypass and Price’s at 110 S. Congress St.) and Bi-Lo. We want to talk to the manager of our farmers market to see if we can have a storefront where people can get fresh vegetables. Winnsboro Builders Supply carries everything Walmart did and more.”

As the process takes its first baby steps, Vickers said the Chamber is already courting grocery store chains to gauge their interest in Winnsboro. One of the community’s more immediate needs, she said, is a hunting and fishing supply outlet. Whether that is something that Builders Supply expands to take on – or, as Gaddy suggested, something Northside Feed and Seed tackles – remains to be seen.

The one thing that is certain is that it won’t happen overnight. There may be slim pickin’s for Winnsboro consumers for some months to come.

“The kicker at first is just going to be to keep the lights on and the doors open later,” Vickers said.