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Wal-Mart's war on Main Street.

The basement of Boyd's for Boys and Girls in downtown Litchfield, Minnesota, looks like a history museum of the worst in children's fashions. All the real duds from the past forty years have accumulated down there: wool pedal-pushers, polyester bell-bottoms, wide clip-on neckties. There's a big box of 1960s faux fur hats, the kind with the fur pompon ties that dangle under a girl's chin. My father, Boyd Anderson, drags all the old stuff up the stairs and onto the sidewalk once a year on Krazy Daze. At the end of the day, he lugs most of it back down. Folks around here don't go in much for the retro look.

At least for now, the museum is only in the basement. Upstairs, Dad continues to run one of the few remaining independent children's clothing stores on Main Street, USA. But this is the age of Wal-Mart, not Main Street. In 1994, the nation's top retailer plans to add 110 new U.S. stores to its current total of 1,967. For every Wal-Mart opening, there is more than one store like Boyd's that closes its doors.

Litchfield, a town of 6,200 people sixty miles west of Minneapolis, started losing Main Street businesses at the onset of the farm crisis and the shopping-mall boom of the early 1980s. As a high-school student during this time, I remember dinner-table conversation drifting time and again toward rumors of store closings. In those days, Mom frequently cut the conversation off short. "Let's talk about something less depressing, okay?"

Now my family can no longer avoid the issue of Main Street Litchfield's precarious future. Dad, at sixty-eight, stands at a crossroads. Should he retain his faith in Main Street and pass Boyd's down to his children? Or should he listen to the pessimists and close up the forty-one-year-old family business before it becomes obsolete?

For several years, Dad has been reluctant to choose either path. The transition to retirement is difficult for most people who have worked hard all their lives. For him, it could signify not only the end of a working career, but also the end of small-town life as he knows it. When pressed, Dad admits that business on Main Street has been going downhill for the past fifteen years. "I just can't visualize what the future for downtown Litchfield will be," he says. "I've laid awake nights worrying about it because I really don't want my kids to be stuck with a business that will fail."

I am not the aspiring heir to Boyd's. I left Litchfield at eighteen for the big city and would have a tough time readjusting to small-town life. My sister Laurie, a nurse, and my sister-in-law Colleen, who runs a farm with my brother Scott, are the ones eager to enter the ring and fight the retail Goliaths. Both women are well suited to the challenge. Between them, they have seven children who will give them excellent tips on kids' fashions. They are deeply rooted in the community and idealistic enough to believe that Main Street can survive.

My sisters are not alone. Across the country, thousands of rural people are battling to save their local downtowns. Many of these fights have taken the form of anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. In Vermont, citizens' groups allowed Wal-Mart to enter the state only after the company agreed to a long list of demands regarding the size and operation of the stores. Three Massachusetts towns and another in Maine have defeated bids by Wal-Mart to build in their communities. In Arkansas, three independent drugstore owners won a suit charging that Wal-Mart had used "predatory pricing," or selling below cost, to drive out competitors. Canadian citizens are asking Wal-Mart to sign a "Pledge of Corporate Responsibility" before opening in their towns. In at least a dozen other U.S. communities, groups have fought to keep Wal-Mart out or to restrict the firm's activities.

By attacking Wal-Mart, these campaigns have helped raise awareness of the value of locally owned independent stores on Main Street. Their concerns generally fall in five areas:

[paragraph] Sprawl Mart--Wal-Mart nearly always builds along a highway outside town to take advantage of cheap, often unzoned land. This usually attracts additional commercial development, forcing the community to extend services (telephone and power lines, water and sewage services, and so forth) to that area, despite sufficient existing infrastructure downtown.

[paragraph] Wal-Mart channels resources out of a community--studies have shown that a dollar spent on a local business has four or five times the economic spin-off of a dollar spent at a Wal-Mart, since a large share of Wal-Mart's profit returns to its Arkansas headquarters or is pumped into national advertising campaigns.

[paragraph] Wal-Mart destroys jobs in locally owned stores--a Wal-Mart-funded community impact study debunked the retailer's claim that it would create a lot of jobs in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Although Wal-Mart planned to hire 274 people at its Greenfield store, the community could expect to gain only eight net jobs, because of projected losses at other businesses that would have to compete with Wal-Mart.

[paragraph] Citizen Wal-Mart?--in at least one town--Hearne, Texas--Wal-Mart destroyed its Main Street competitors and then deserted the town in search of higher returns elsewhere. Unable to attract new businesses to the devastated Main Street, local residents have no choice but to drive long distances to buy basic goods.

[paragraph] One-stop shopping culture--in Greenfield, where citizens voted to keep Wal-Mart out, anti-Wal-Mart campaign manager Al Norman said he saw a resurgence of appreciation for Main Street. "People realized there's one thing you can't buy at Wal-Mart, and that's small-town quality of life," Norman explains. "This community decided it was not ready to die for a cheap pair of underwear."

So far Litchfield hasn't been forced to make that decision. Nevertheless, the town is already losing at least some business to four nearby Wal-Marts, each less than forty miles from town. To find out how formidable this enemy is, Mom and I went on a spying mission to the closest Wal-Mart, twenty miles away in Hutchinson.

Just inside the door, we were met by a so-called Wal-Mart "greeter" (actually the greeters just say hello as they take your bags to prevent you from shoplifting). We realized we knew her. Before becoming a greeter, she had been a cashier at a downtown Litchfield supermarket until it closed early this year. I tried to be casual when I asked if she greets many people from Litchfield. "Oh, a-a-a-ll the time!" she replied. Sure enough, Mom immediately spotted one in the checkout line.

Not wanting to look too suspicious, we moved on toward the children's department, where we discreetly examined price tags and labels. Not all, but many items were cheaper than at Boyd's. It was the brainwashing campaign that we found most intimidating, though. Throughout the store were huge red, white, and blue banners declaring BRING IT HOME TO AMERICA. Confusingly, the labels on the children's clothing indicated that they had been imported from sixteen countries, including Haiti, where an embargo on exports was supposed to be in place.

Of course, Wal-Mart is not Main Street's only foe. Over coffee at the Main Street Cafe, some of Litchfield's long-time merchants gave me a litany of additional complaints. Like my dad, many of these men remember when three-block-long Main Street was a bustling social and commercial hub, with two movie theaters, six restaurants, a department store, and a grand old hotel.

Present-day Litchfield is not a ghost town, but there are four empty storefronts, and several former commercial buildings now house offices for government service agencies. In recent years, the downtown has lost its last two drugstores and two supermarkets. As a result, elderly people who live downtown and are unable to drive can no longer do their own shopping.

My dad and the other merchants place as much blame for this decline on cutthroat suppliers as on Wal-Mart. The big brand names, especially, have no time anymore for small clients. Don Brock, who ran a furniture store for thirty-three years before retiring in 1991, remembers getting an honorary plaque from a manufacturer whose products he carried for many years. "Six months later I got a letter saying they were no longer going to fill my orders."

At the moment, Litchfield's most pressing threat is a transportation department plan to reroute the state highway that now runs down Main Street to the outskirts of town. Local merchants fear the bypass would kill the considerable business they now get from travelers. Bypasses are also magnets for Wal-Mart and other discounters attracted to the large, cheap, and often unzoned sites along the bypass.

When I asked the merchants how they felt about the bypass, the table grew quiet. Greg Heath, a florist and antique dealer, sighed and said, "The bypass will come--it might be ten years from now, but it will come. By then, we'll either be out of business or the bypass will drive us out."

The struggles of Main Street merchants have naturally created a growth industry in consultants ready to provide tips on marketing and customer relations. Community-development experts caution, though, that individual merchants acting on their own cannot keep Main Street strong. "Given the enormous forces of change, the only way these businesses can survive is with active public and government support," says Dawn Nakano, of the National Center for Economic Alternatives in Washington, D.C.

Some of the most effective efforts at revitalization, Nakano says, are community development corporations--private, nonprofit corporations governed by a community-based board and usually funded in part by foundation and government money. In Pittsburgh, for example, the city government and about thirty nonprofit groups formed a community development corporation to save an impoverished neighborhood where all but three businesses were boarded up. Today, thanks to such financing and technical assistance, the area has a lively shopping district.

Although most community development corporations have been created to serve low-income urban neighborhoods, Nakano feels that they could be equally effective in saving Main Streets. "There's no reason why church, civic, and other groups in a small town couldn't form a community development corporation to fill boarded-up stores with new businesses. Besides revitalizing Main Street, this could go a long way towards cultivating a 'buy local' culture among residents."

The National Main Street Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, provides some of the most comprehensive Main Street revitalization services. The Center has helped more than 850 towns build cooperative links among merchants, government, and citizens. However, the Center's efforts focus on improving marketing techniques and the physical appearance of stores, which can only do so much to counter the powerful forces of change.

No matter how well designed, any Main Street revitalization project will fail without local public support. Unfortunately, it is difficult for many rural people to consider the long-term, overall effects of their purchases, given the high levels of rural unemployment, job insecurity, and poverty. If you're worried about paying your rent, you're not going to pay more for a toaster at your local hardware store, no matter how much you like your hometown.

Another problem is political. Like those in decaying urban neighborhoods, many rural people have seen the signs of decline around them and concluded that they lack the clout necessary to harness the forces of change for their own benefit. If you've seen your neighbors lose their farms through foreclosure, your school close down, and local manufacturing move to Mexico, how empowered will you feel?

Litchfield Mayor Ron Ebnet has done his best to bolster community confidence and loyalty to Main Street. "Every year at the Christmas lighting ceremony, I tell people to buy their gifts in town. I know everyone is sick of hearing it, but I don't care." Ebnet has whipped up opposition to the proposed bypass, with strong support from the city council, chamber of commerce, the newspaper editor, and the state senator. He also orchestrated a downtown beautification project and helped the town win a state redevelopment grant to upgrade downtown businesses and residences.

Ebnet has failed to win over everyone, though. Retired merchant Don Larson told me about a local resident who drove forty miles to get something seventeen cents cheaper than he could buy it at the Litchfield lumberyard. "I pointed out that he had spent more on gas than he'd saved, but he told me that 'it was a matter of principle.' I thought, what about the principle of supporting your community? People just don't think about that, though."

Mayor Ebnet agrees, "Many people still have a 1950s mentality," he says. "They can't see the tremendous changes that are affecting these small businesses. People tell me they want the bypass because there's too much traffic downtown and they have a hard time crossing the street. And I ask them, but what will you be crossing to? If we get the bypass, there will be nothing left!"

Last summer, with the threat of the bypass hanging over his head, Dad became increasingly stubborn about making a decision about the store. His antique Underwood typewriter was never more productive, as it banged out angry letters to the state transportation department.

My sisters decided to try a new tactic. While my parents were on vacation, they assaulted the store with paintbrushes and wallpaper, transforming what had been a rather rustic restroom and doing an unprecedented amount of redecorating and rearranging.

The strategy worked. "At first, Dad was a bit shocked," Laurie said. "He commented that in his opinion, the old toiletpaper dispenser had been perfectly fine. But overall he was pleased with the changes, and two days later he called for a meeting with us and our spouses."

"Your dad started out by making a little speech," Colleen said. "The first thing he said was, 'Well, things aren't how they used to be.' Then he pulled out some papers he'd prepared and told us exactly how much sales and profits have been over the years and what we could expect to make. He told us what he thinks are the negative and the positive aspects of the job and then said if we were still interested, we could begin talking about a starting date for us to take over."

Dad later told me, "The only way I could feel comfortable about Laurie and Colleen running the store is if it was at no financial risk to them. So I'm setting up an account for them to draw from--enough for a one-year trial. But if they can't make a good profit, then that's it--I'll try to sell the business to someone else. I still worry that they don't know what they're getting themselves into. Especially if the bypass goes through, things are going to be rough."

My sisters are optimistic. They plan to form a buying cooperative with Main Street children's clothing stores in other towns and have already drafted a customer survey to help them better understand local needs. "I think we're going to see a big increase in appreciation of the small-town atmosphere," Colleen says. "There are more and more people moving to Litchfield from the Twin Cities to take advantage of the small-town way of life. I think they might even be more inclined to support the local businesses than people who've lived here their whole lives and now take the town for granted."

Small towns cannot return to the past, when families did all their shopping and socializing in their hometown. Rural life is changing and there's no use denying it. The most important question is, who will define the future? Will it be Wal-Mart, whose narrow corporate interests have little to do with building healthy communities? Will it be the department of transportation, whose purpose is to move cars faster? Will it be the banks and suppliers primarily interested in doing business with the big guys? Or will it be the people who live in small towns, whose hard work and support are essential to any effort to revitalize Main Street?

In my hometown, there are at least two new reasons for optimism. First, shortly before my deadline for this article, the Minnesota transportation department announced that it was dropping the Litch-field highway bypass project because of local opposition. (My dad's Underwood will finally get a rest.) The second reason is that a new teal green awning will soon be hanging over the front of Boyd's--a symbol of one family's belief that Main Street, while weary, is not yet a relic of the past.
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Title Annotation:Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Author:Anderson, Sarah
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Nov 1, 1994
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