A friend sent me a post about a Walmart store closing. This particular store is located in the town of Kimball, located in McDowell County, West Virginia. The headline was “Stop the Bleeding.” Apparently, a story about Walmart killing another small town. Being an old codger, I suspect there is more going on than the local paper is telling us.
For the record, I don’t have any privileged knowledge about the internal workings of Kimball, West Virginia, McDowell Country or Walmart. Having said that, McDowell County has had way more words written about it than its small size and low population would normally justify. That’s because it’s a case study of the effects of the coal industry, and the struggle of many rural communities with poverty and a vanishing tax base. The story of McDowell County, and its decline, right up to, and including, the Walmart Closing brings up a lot of questions.
The first question is this: Why in the hell would Walmart build a store there in the first place? McDowell country is in the heart of Appalachian coal country. Its population peaked in the 1950, when the census reported 99,000 inhabitants. The town of Kimball, where the now infamous Walmart is located, peaked in 1940 with a population of 1500.
The population of Kimball has fallen off a cliff since then. Between the 2000 and 2010 census, the population was halved, from 411, to 194. I’m pretty sure it takes a population of more than 200 people to sustain a Walmart Supercenter. As it turns out, there is another Walmart Supercenter just two miles down the road in the unincorporated township of Big Four. While I couldn’t find any information on when both of these stores were built, I’m going to guess the Big Four store is the more recent addition. It makes sense, taxes are going to be lower there. The newer store might well have lower maintenance costs as well.
There is also the popular legend of Walmart as the evil destroyer of small business to consider. It runs something like this… A thriving, and charming, small town allows Walmart to build a Supercenter on the edge of town. Not long after that, businesses along Main Street start closing. However, the Walmart parking lot is full day and night. Then Walmart decides they’re not making enough profit, and shutters the store, leaving a ghost town behind. At the core of this idea is the assumption that most Americans will drive 10 miles to save 25 cents, and screw their next door neighbor who runs the local hardware store in the process.
I can only say that I personally have seen this behavior. I know people who went to a local store to see a product, then went home to buy it at Amazon. When the tax base in your community collapses, and services like the fire and police department are cut back, the schools go to hell, you need to realize that you are complicit. The fact is that Giant Corporation profits don’t stay in the community, they go to the head office. And a substantial part of it winds up at Wall Street mega banks. Those corporations and banks are not thinking about your community, except as a source of income.
We’ve all heard these stories, and most of us have engaged in this behavior. But is this the case in Kimball, West Virginia? It’s not hard to find cases where local authorities lobbied Walmart and similar chains to build a store in their town. Even to the point of giving tax breaks and other benefits. In coal mining country, it’s clear that the local economy was already collapsing. Small businesses just can’t survive when the local population is being cut in half every ten years.
I also can’t understand why a company like Walmart would build a store there in the first place. The management is not stupid, I’m sure they had their reasons, maybe the enterprise was profitable over its lifetime.
Did the local civic leaders have a ‘Plan B’? Walmart was the biggest single employer, they must have had a plan to deal with exactly this scenario. Maybe they put forward their best efforts and failed to attract other employers that could provide some growth?
I’m not a big fan of Walmart. In my view, their stores suck, they are not able to keep the shelves stocked, and the stores in my area look and feel like a set from some dystopian movie. Plus, they are not always the cheapest. You have to pay attention to prices. Despite my dislike of Walmart, it’s hard to fault them in this case. Many of these small towns are not going back to their previous golden years of growth and prosperity. It’s a big problem for small town business people to deal with. Only a few are going to develop and execute a successful strategy.