Sunday, October 22, 2006

First in an occasional series chronicling how the opening of a new Wal-Mart affects a small Virginia town.


In this town of 1,244 about two hours south of the Beltway, folks are used to walking in the unlocked back door of a neighbor’s home, sometimes without knocking.

Retailers on Main Street wave the American flag outside their shops and put home phone numbers on their business cards.

Kilmarnock, or “Kil-MAH-nick,” is an hourlong drive from a Starbucks coffee shop, train station or taxis, and a 30-minute drive to a Wal-Mart.

But not for long.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to build a 155,000-square-foot “superstore,” with grocery, bakery and deli departments, on 64 acres at the north end of this quiet Northern Neck community.

Construction, originally scheduled to beginthis month, was postponed after the neighboring town of White Stone requested a new traffic-impact study from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Wal-Mart officials say construction will start when VDOT gives the go-ahead.

Kilmarnock, like other small towns, protested when Wal-Mart originally came knocking. The Lancaster County community fought a zoning change for a rumored Wal-Mart store in 1998, waving a $15,000 economic-impact study suggesting the world’s largest retailer would weaken local businesses.

But this time, the necessary zoning for the property was in place and there wasn’t much protesters could do besides vowing not to shop at the store.

Supporters — families, younger shoppers, the town government — are rolling out the welcome mat for economic growth. They say they want quick access to basic goods that aren’t easy to find in town, such as children’s clothes, socks and shower curtains.

But Main Street retailers worry Wal-Mart is going to siphon off retail sales, hurting their livelihood and ability to donate to local causes.

And many of those who moved to the Northern Neck to retire don’t want the retailer to make quaint Kilmarnock look like the big cities they left.

“It’s a home-grown community, close-knit,” says Drew Gulbranson, 61, as he and his wife, Donna, munch on french fries during the annual volunteer firemen’s carnival over the summer.

Small-town feel

Like many a Kilmarnock resident, Mr. Gulbranson grew up here, left for a few years and was drawn back. He’s a “been here,” one of a group of natives that engages in a friendly rivalry with the “come heres,” those from East Coast cities who retire to Kilmarnock’s waterfront homes.

The “come heres” are part of a 65-and-over crowd that makes up 37 percent of Kilmarnock’s population. By comparison, those 65 and over account for only 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

Both groups are drawn to the Chesapeake Bay, the open land and the friendly characters in town.

The lower Northern Neck was largely inaccessible, except by ferry or a long drive north, until the Robert O. Norris Bridge connected it to Route 3 and the mainland in 1957. It slowly has grown as Northern Virginians discover the area, but even today only a few stoplights dot the streets of Kilmarnock.

A drive down Main Street after 7 p.m. is quiet. Most shops close two hours earlier and there’s no traffic, let alone congestion. The few streetlights are shaded downward to preserve the view of the stars at night.

Sunday mornings are spent at church. Antique galleries are the few businesses in Kilmarnock with Sunday hours.

Most of the cars parked along Main Street are unlocked and the keys sit on the front seat — unless, of course, the owner is a “come here” who can’t break the habit.

“You can tell who has moved here because they press the button when they get out of the car,” Mr. Gulbranson says.

“We’re a small community,” says Joe Hudnall, president of the Noblett Inc. appliance store on Main Street and a resident since 1978. “You go out to eat or go to church and you know everybody there. I could walk down the street and know 19 out of 20 people by name.”

Ready to compete

As Wal-Mart prepares to start construction on Main Street, about a mile north of downtown, business owners are making changes to their inventories to combat the retail giant.

These merchants worry that Wal-Mart at the very least will hurt their sales and, at worst, bury them and force them to close. But they also worry that Wal-Mart and the kind of capitalism it represents will ruin their small town.

“We’re too small for a 155,000-square-foot building. I don’t believe it’s a good fit,” says Mr. Hudnall, who led a brief anti-Wal-Mart protest.

The appliance store operator says he “hates” Wal-Mart because of its business practices and predicts, “It’s going to drive out a lot of small businesses.”

Some shop owners say they’re against Wal-Mart opening in Kilmarnock not just because of the massive competition, but also because of questions of ethics that have plagued the company: accusations of lowering prices until it eats the competition, then raising them; hiring part-time employees so it doesn’t have to provide benefits; and making full-time benefits expensive or hard to come by.

Nearly everyone with a stake in Kilmarnock insists Wal-Mart will hurt local businesses, but whether that’s just in the first few months or for years is a matter of contention.

A sporting goods store on Main Street, Sports Centre, is changing its focus to team sales, including uniforms and trophies. Up the street, Farm & Home Supply is pushing harder to please the customer and turning from from products Wal-Mart carries.

“We don’t have the buying power that big boxes have,” says William Pittman, manager of Farm & Home Supply.

Instead of trying to compete on price, a battle it knows it can’t win, Farm & Home will rely on customer service, repairs and knowledge of its products, Mr. Pittman says.

Sports Centre has cleared out its supply of low-cost baseball mitts and now carries the high-priced mitts that Wal-Mart does not.

“I had to change a lot or face the consequences when they come,” owner Bill Smith says.

His store is housed in the old movie theater where he collected tickets during high school and next door to Dawson’s Ltd. clothing store, which his wife co-owns.

“As a business owner, I like change,” Mr. Smith says, pointing to the scaled-down golf section and areas that used to display hunting and fishing products. “But I don’t look forward to my town changing.”

Wal-Mart officials say they want their store to blend into the community and altered the chain’s typical store design to do so. It will incorporate lampposts similar to the ones installed on Main Street as well as coastal colors such as beige and blues.

“It is important that our store reflect the community we are a part of — our associates, our merchandise and our design,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Laurie Smalling says.

Some business owners also worry that because the store will be open 24 hours a day, crime will go up, a notion the police chief dispels.

“I’ve never seen a business yet that has increased crime, unless it’s a bar,” Chief Michael Bedell says. “In the beginning, there could be a drain or a stress on the police department.”

Chief Bedell figures that teenagers who now loiter at other businesses could move to the Wal-Mart parking lot. But he doesn’t expect bigger problems for his police force, which is staffed 22 hours a day by four full-time and three part-time officers.

Merchants also question whether Kilmarnock can support a Wal-Mart. Their biggest fear is that Wal-Mart will decide within a few years that Kilmarnock is not a good fit and leave the town with a big, empty building and few if any surviving retailers.

Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. (VHB), the Richmond developer that submitted the construction permit on Wal-Mart’s behalf, estimates that 7,700 cars will travel to the new store each weekday and nearly 9,000 each Saturday.

However, Lancaster and the two other counties surrounding the new Wal-Mart — a larger region than VHB’s estimated trade area that includes two competing Wal-Marts — are home to about 26,060 cars, according to 2000 U.S. census figures. That would mean each car in those counties would have to travel to the new Wal-Mart — instead of the existing ones — just under two times per week.

Where charity begins

Merchants often are asked to contribute to fundraisers for everything from the high school band to a local church to the volunteer fire department. And because the person asking for money is often a neighbor, or a son’s school friend, or the guy at church, the merchants say yes. They call it part of the small town’s charm.

Nearly all of the business owners worry that profits will fall once Wal-Mart opens, making them less able to contribute to charity. On top of that, they worry Wal-Mart won’t contribute to local charities at all.

Some business owners estimate they donate about $5,000 per year to local fundraisers, including a new YMCA facility in town.

“I’ve had four today,” Sports Centre owner Mr. Smith says, ticking off a cancer fundraiser, a youth football team and two church drives.

The Kilmarnock Museum, which relies partly on donations, doesn’t bother asking for donations from the town’s existing chain operations — fast-food restaurants, Peebles department store and a CVS pharmacy — and instead sticks to the mom-and-pop shops that make up most of the town’s businesses.

“By the time it goes through the chain of command, it’s useless,” museum founder Augusta Sellew says.

Wal-Mart says it will contribute to local causes. Last year, the retailer’s 96 Virginia stores donated nearly $9.5 million to causes and organizations in the state.

“We believe each Wal-Mart store, Sam’s Club location and distribution center has a responsibility to contribute to the good of the local community, which is why in 2005, 90 percent of our charitable cash contributions were made at the local level,” Ms. Smalling says. “Our proposed store in Kilmarnock will make contributions at the local level.”

Some shoppers say Wal-Mart will bring needed competition to the Main Street retailers, many of which have a monopoly.

“The shops here have retooled their business to cater to the middle-to-upscale shopper,” Mayor Curtis H. Smith says. “They’re not after the ordinary citizens. I’ll catch some criticism for that, but that’s the truth.”

Welcome from families

Residents can find antiques, upscale clothes, appliances, sports gear, books, office supplies, bicycles and pharmaceuticals on Main Street. But children’s clothes, school supplies and products such as socks, towels, thread and crafts typically require a trip outside town.

And where do such shoppers go? Wal-Mart. There is one about 40 miles north, in Tappahannock, or 30 miles south, in Gloucester.

“I bought my whole outfit from Wal-Mart,” says Ashley George, 17, a Kilmarnock native who makes the drive to Wal-Mart two to three times per week. “I hope it comes. It needs to come.”

Families are eager for the store to open, too.

“I don’t want to see a working person lose their job,” says Wayne Warwick, acknowledging concerns that Wal-Mart could drive retailers out of business. “But I like the convenience it would probably bring.”

Mr. Warwick, 43, lives in nearby Weams and has two daughters. When they make the drive to Wal-Mart, it turns into an event that includes stops at other stores or a restaurant.

“So many items are 30 miles away. With gas at $3 a gallon, 30 miles is a lot,” he says in an interview over the summer.

Wal-Mart, founded in 1962 in the small town of Rogers, Ark.,says its products, particularly groceries, are needed in Kilmarnock.

“Wal-Mart is continually looking for opportunities to reach new customers, as well as better serve our current customers,” Ms. Smalling says. “Kilmarnock is an area where having a store provides more shopping convenience than driving 30 minutes away.”

The store also will bring 350 jobs. Lancaster County’s unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, according to June figures from the U.S. Labor Department, the latest available.

‘Cultural impact’

The town government says Kilmarnock retailers will stay in business.

“The people who will shop [at the Kilmarnock Wal-Mart] are already going to Wal-Mart in Tappahannock and Gloucester,” says Stephen W. Bonner, who owns the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery and is a member of the Kilmarnock Planning Commission.

He says people will continue to shop at the small businesses because they know the owners.

“I get my appliances at Noblett’s. If my appliance breaks, I’d rather call Joe than fight with Wal-Mart,” Mr. Bonner says, referring to owner Joe Hudnall, who lists his home number on his business card.

Mr. Bonner and the town’s former and current mayors say Kilmarnock’s business community is prepared to withstand the competition.

The town completed a $4.2 million beautification project over the summer that included repaving sidewalks and streets along the half-mile stretch of Main Street downtown. Lampposts and medians also were installed.

The town started marketing the area as Steptoe’s District, a downtown destination named after the town’s early moniker that is open later than 5 p.m. one night per week.

Mr. Smith, Kilmarnock’s mayor, recognizes that his town is somewhat divided over Wal-Mart.

“People who are of average means want it because they need the shopping options, like buying underwear and things you can’t buy here,” he says. “People of above-average means and the wealthy don’t like it. They see it as an encroachment on paradise.”

Some retailers say the town is cooperating with Wal-Mart because of the sales-tax revenue it will create and the possibility that if it didn’t, Wal-Mart would open in another town.

“We’re not driven by the tax revenue, but the cultural impact on the community,” Town Manager Lee Hood Capps says. “We’re concerned about the lifestyle for the next 50 years.”

Sales-tax revenue goes to the county and is distributed to towns according to school-age population, meaning neighboring towns will benefit as much as Kilmarnock.

Mike Robertson, who was mayor late last year when Wal-Mart began its bid to move to town, predicts that the increased traffic will help all merchants.

“If you have 100 cars passing a day, you’re going to get a certain percentage of those people in your store,” he says. “If that goes up to 200 cars a day, you’re going to increase that percentage.”

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