KILMARNOCK, Va. — A decade ago, this tiny Northern Neck coastal town thought it had slain its Goliath.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was rumored to be interested in opening a store in this town of 1,244, one that resembles the 1950s more than modern-day Washington 140 miles north.
Main Street is lined with mom and pop shops and family-owned restaurants, many of which fly American flags out front and still allow customers to keep a tab. People are friendly. Neighbors go around to knock on the back door of the house — never the front — and residents don’t have a reason to lock their cars.
Kilmarnock fought back against what it felt would be an impediment to its small-town way of life, one that had only a handful of chain stores.
Business owners feared the behemoth Wal-Mart would run them out of business and increase crime. They bought an expensive economic analysis study that found the community wasn’t large enough to support the store.
The developers backed off.
By 2006, the world’s largest retailer was drawn back to the town of families, wealthy Northern Virginia retirees and summer tourists. By then, the land had been rezoned, perfect for a big-box retailer like Wal-Mart.
There was nothing town officials could do to legally keep Wal-Mart out. So they embraced it, much to the chagrin of the local business community and the residents that packed the firehouse for a town council meeting.
Kilmarnock, like large cities and small towns throughout the country, debated what kind of impact the world’s largest retailer would have: Would it destroy the town’s character and business community or help build it up?
The Washington Times set out in 2006 to measure that impact in Kilmarnock, following the town and the development of the 156,622-square-foot store, which has now been open just over a year, to judge what really happens when Wal-Mart comes to town.
Today, Kilmarnock and Wal-Mart are more than a year into their relationship. The doomsday scenario — the presence of Wal-Mart would drive small businesses out of town, increase crime and turn Kilmarnock into a town of neon-coated chain stores — hasn’t played out to the extent once feared. But residents and business owners are beginning to see the changes Wal-Mart has brought about so far.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s success, colossal size and voracious appetite — worldwide, it opened an average of more than one store per day in 2007 — has made it a cultural icon and lightning rod for criticism.
Most Americans love or hate the world’s largest retailer. They either are drawn to it for its low-priced goods and the convenience of having everything under one roof or hate it for its perceived greed, labor practices and massive power to out-price its competitors.
The charismatic Sam Walton founded the company under far different circumstances 47 years ago when he opened the first Wal-Mart Discount City in small-town Rogers, Ark.
But success came quickly. The company went public a decade later, taking its discount stores to small towns throughout the South and, later, the rest of the country. In 1988, Wal-Mart developed its first supercenter — a discount store with a grocery section — which within three years propelled it past Sears Roebuck & Co. as the nation’s largest retailer.
The company has continued to grow at a substantial pace. In 2007, Wal-Mart recorded sales of $374.5 billion. If those sales were evenly divided around the world that year, each person on Earth would have spent $55 at Wal-Mart.
From the beginning, Stuart Dunaway felt threatened by the mammoth Wal-Mart. The local grocery-store owner is one of those characters who makes a small town feel like a large family. He’s a spry 74-year-old with a bit of a sarcastic wit who apologizes for talking too fast and knows everyone by name.
It’s hard to find a Kilmarnock resident with a bad thing to say about Mr. Dunaway, who learned the grocery business from his father-in-law and opened the Tri-Star grocery store in 1975.
Little league teams and charities often hit up Mr. Dunaway for donations or approval to set up a table in front of the store. He gave $20 out of his own pocket to Kathy Sanders when she didn’t have enough money for groceries, a long-lost moment of generosity that she recounted on Wal-Mart’s opening day.
“He trusted me,” Ms. Sanders said. “They’re always going to have my business.”
Despite residents’ loyalty to locally owned stores, sales at Tri-Star fell 8 percent to 10 percent in 2008, Mr. Dunaway said, attributing the decline to Wal-Mart. When Wal-Mart opened, he relied on faith in his employees and their customer services skills.
“We dig in,” he said. “We try to be very competitive and have good service and stay clean.”
Tri-Star’s drop was the most serious of those shop owners interviewed by The Washington Times. Others reported mixed results. In most cases, sales fell dramatically immediately after the Wal-Mart opened, then leveled off slightly down from pre-Wal-Mart sales.
“People go to Wal-Mart to shop because it’s convenient,” said Doll House owner Brenda Shirah, who also said it’s easier to go to one store than dash between different shops on Main Street. “It’s cold down here.”
A handful of stores have closed since Wal-Mart opened, including Dawson’s Ltd. clothing store. Owner Eddie Dawson said Wal-Mart didn’t help business, but it wasn’t the only reason for the closing. He said he’s going to retire instead of fighting a climate that no longer favors independent clothing stores.
“Only a fool would open retail,” he said wistfully, just before the Wal-Mart opened.
Others view Wal-Mart as a positive for Kilmarnock’s business community.
“Wal-Mart coming has brought business here,” said Kathy Lukasewicz, owner of Foxy in Kilmarnock clothing store.
Kilmarnock town officials say they view Wal-Mart as a good corporate neighbor and a plus for Lancaster County, which collects the local sales tax.
“Those folks shopping [at neighboring Wal-Marts] in Gloucester or Tappahannock — those folks are now spending their money in the community they live in,” said Lara Burleson, who until January was the Kilmarnock town manager. “We probably have gained some folks who were going to those stores.”
Sales tax revenue, however, remained almost constant. The county took in $1.9 million in the fiscal year before Wal-Mart opened. The 2008 fiscal year — Wal-Mart opened four months into the year — brought in $2 million. Kilmarnock’s take of the sales tax, which is calculated based on school-aged population and other factors, increased by only $1,000.
Lancaster County has two types of people: the “come heres” and the “been heres.”
About half of the population is over 50 and taking Social Security, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Many of the people who retire in Kilmarnock say they visited the area on weekends while living in Northern Virginia or other East Coast cities and choose to live there full time in retirement.
They’re called the come heres and are still adjusting to the country. Easiest way to spot them? The beep-beep of the automatic door lock after they park their cars — a city habit they can’t seem to break in an area with little to no auto theft.
The been heres are more diverse. They’re families with a median income of $33,000. They likely include the 10 percent of the county’s population under the poverty line.
The Wal-Mart debate, to some extent, divided between the come heres and been heres. The newer Kilmarnock residents lived their whole lives in urban or suburban areas, with multiple shopping options nearby. They’re also likely to be wealthier and don’t mind the 30-mile trip to Gloucester if they need goods.
The been heres, on the other hand, are likely to be families who need styrofoam balls for fourth-grade science projects and diapers for the baby and don’t want to make the 30-mile trek twice a week. For the most part, they supported Wal-Mart for the access to low-price goods and things that previously couldn’t be found in town.
“People in my generation, people starting families, we need [Wal-Mart],” said Tammie Jacey, 33, whose family of six splits its time between Richmond and Kilmarnock. “I love it. I was like, ‘Yippee! There’s a Wal-Mart in Kilmarnock!’”
Many of the early critics of Wal-Mart have come around.
Emily Lawson and her son, Charles, worried that the arrival of Wal-Mart would hurt the family’s auto parts store.
“People say they are going to make one stop to get groceries, and then they wheel around and buy the chemicals and the [auto] battery,” Mrs. Lawson said. “That hurts a small business.”
Both mother and son have problems with Wal-Mart, citing low-quality goods they say rip shoppers off. But both say they shop there.
“I’m even wearing Wal-Mart jeans right now,” Charles Lawson said.
Business owners still are unhappy that Wal-Mart has posed such a challenge particularly during a recession.
Bill Smith, owner of Sports Centre on Main Street, said he’s not sure if Wal-Mart or the economy is to blame for the dip in his business. But as he looks around and sees a handful of empty storefronts on Main Street, he wonders about his own future.
“When you see stores close on Main Street, you have to question whether you should be on Main Street,” he said.
A century ago, the large plot of land at the north end of town was a fairground, horse-racing track and, at some point, a small family cemetery.
The trees were cut down, the land was flattened and the cemetery relocated. Today, the plot is the epicenter of Kilmarnock’s rapid development — at least, rapid for this small town. Wal-Mart has spurred commercial growth and Sunday shopping hours and became the site of the town’s seventh traffic light.
One of the most-cited concerns about Wal-Mart — the first being its impact on business — is that it would change the character of Kilmarnock. There’s an intangible kindness and small-town appeal — change comes slowly here — that makes Kilmarnock far different from Washington, Richmond and even Newport News.
One of the first signs of Wal-Mart’s impact was Advance America, a payday loan and cash advance center. Four months after Wal-Mart opened, the company filed a permit to open in Kilmarnock Marketplace, a small strip mall built immediately in front of the Wal-Mart parking lot.
Across the country, chain stores typically follow Wal-Mart, opening stores nearby in an attempt to siphon sales.
Social advocates protested this one, saying the store would blemish Kilmarnock and hurt people in dire financial condition.
“My concern was just that it preys on people who don’t have the funds,” said the Rev. Megan L. Hollaway, assistant rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Kilmarnock, who protested the store.
But again, the town had no legal means to stop the store from opening.
“We like being near Wal-Marts or large grocery stores or large national name retailers,” said Advance America spokesman Jamie Fulmer, who said the chain isn’t harmful. “We like being near where hard-working, middle-income America works, lives and shops.”
Verizon, Dollar Tree and Jackson Hewitt opened in the same strip mall within a few months. The neon signs of CVS and Walgreens were turned on just before the Wal-Mart opened.
The business community at large grew 3 percent — to 283 businesses — in 2008. At least half of that growth was from chains. The north end of town has become the chain and commercial center of town, separate from Main Street, which is populated only by mom and pop or non-chain stores.
The increased commercial activity has also brought crime along with it.
Thefts that typically took place in various stores throughout Kilmarnock are now centered at the Wal-Mart, said Police Chief Mike Bedell, and about a dozen employee thefts have been reported since the store opened.
But, overall, crime in Kilmarnock hasn’t increased since the store opened, he said.
The corporate chains also expanded a somewhat rare phenomenon in Kilmarnock: Sunday shopping. Previously, gas stations and antique shops were the only businesses open in Kilmarnock, where the church-to-person ratio is better than 1:100.
“We’ve got a lot of churches and everybody goes to church,” said local radio station general manager Charlie Lassiter. “It’s part of the small town character.”
The rapid growth in Kilmarnock also has environmentalists worried. Wal-Mart is less than two miles from one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, which has been dirtied by construction and parking lot runoff.
The weekend after the store opened, a massive thunderstorm overwhelmed Wal-Mart’s retention pond and broke a dam, sending up to 36 inches of sand and sediment into the downstream Norris Mill Pond, according to a report by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Wal-Mart Stores East LP, the development group that owns the land, was fined $6,370 and ordered to fix the problem.
Both Wal-Mart and Kilmarnock tried to limit the store’s disruptions on the town.
As Wal-Mart expands throughout the country, it finds itself making changes to better fit into the community. In the Washington suburb of Landover Hills, Md., for instance, it meant conceding to the community’s wish that it not sell guns.
In Kilmarnock, town officials wanted the store to physically blend in.
Mayor Curtis H. Smith said Wal-Mart agreed to a city request that the store not be open 24 hours, as store officials originally intended. It closes at 11 p.m. each day.
The store physically looks different from the traditional Wal-Mart, too. It has a beige facade that matches the town’s coastal color palate. The parking lot lights are dim — similar to the ones on Main Street — to preserve the view of the stars at night.
Store manager David Anderson says Wal-Mart has provided other benefits to Kilmarnock as well.
The store employs more than 200 people, making it one of the largest employers in the county. He declined to talk about specific sales numbers but did say the store is exceeding projections.
At the grand opening in October 2007, the store donated $34,000 to local groups, including the Northern Neck Free Health Clinic. Since then, it’s made donations to community charity drives, volunteered at the annual volunteer fire department’s carnival and provided lights for the town Christmas tree.
Mr. Anderson said the Kilmarnock Wal-Mart is more involved in the community than other Wal-Marts.
“In the [other] stores I’ve been in, Wal-Mart is involved financially, but that’s where it ends. Here, we’re really involved in the community,” he said. “When your town isn’t as big as other towns, you see the same people over and over.”
Mr. Smith says the Wal-Mart and the changes it brought about have been good for Kilmarnock, as long as it is measured growth.
“We don’t want to grow to be a Fredericksburg,” he said, adding that he expects a large empty lot nearby to be developed with a big-box store within a few years, too.
Still, the town took steps to prevent a negative impact on business. In 2007, the city completed a $4.5 million renovation of the Main Street district. The street was spruced up and sidewalks were widened to make the corridor more pedestrian friendly, particularly for tourists.
Planning officials say the renovations paid off, helping Main Street survive Wal-Mart’s move.
“We’ve preserved downtown,” said Steve Bonner, a member of the Kilmarnock planning commission and owner of a local antique gallery. The area Wal-Mart is in, which is more sprawling than downtown and home to a tractor dealership and other large stores, “lends itself to commercial, fast food, whatever,” Mr. Bonner said.
He, too, expects Kilmarnock to continue to grow.
“Wal-Mart starts something.”
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