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Don’t dare take our Wal-Mart 

In Southeast Arkansas, a city fights to keep, not block, the big retailer

click to enlarge PLEASE DON'T GO: McGehee's message to Wal-Mart.
  • PLEASE DON'T GO: McGehee's message to Wal-Mart.
It’s a man-bites-dog story in an era when local efforts to block big-box retailers have captured headlines around the country: A small, fading community in Southeast Arkansas learns its small, outdated Wal-Mart will shut down if the company decides to build a Supercenter in a rival town 20 miles up the highway. Everyone from the mayor to students at the high school starts throwing everything they can at the corporate Wal-Mart wall — Census figures and crime statistics, barrages of phone calls and e-mails, the implied threat of a whole bunch of bad PR — hoping enough will stick to convince Wal-Mart to stay. The irony is not lost on Mayor Bain Poole. “As we all know, that’s sort of unusual,” he said. “… But when you reach the point where Wal-Mart’s all you got left — we’re trying to keep it.” First, a brief geography lesson. McGehee, the town in question, is home to a slowly dwindling population that the Census currently estimates at 4,310. It straddles U.S. Highway 65 in southern Desha County, 26 miles east of Monticello, 20 miles south of Dumas (also in Desha County) and 45 miles by road from Greenville, Miss. Each of those towns has its own Wal-Mart, and while a significant number of people who live in McGehee both work and shop in Monticello (home of a Supercenter), a significant number of other people who live in Dermott, Lake Village and other points south come to McGehee for work and trade. Until recently, McGehee’s relationship with the world’s largest retailer progressed along the usual trajectory. Wal-Mart built its store, on the edge of town, in 1974. Its coming didn’t spell immediate doom for McGehee’s mom-and-pop retailers, but it doomed them nonetheless, says John Clower, an octopus of a local businessman whose tentacles have dipped into building supply, insurance and real estate over the decades. “As in everywhere Wal-Mart came, a lot of independent businesspeople were unable to sell their stores when they got ready to retire,” Clower said. Their stores still made enough money to support them, but not enough to justify new owners borrowing money to buy them out. Buren Sharpe Building Materials, the store Clower had a stake in, was a rare exception. “We learned to compete,” he said. “We had to do things like, Wal-Mart sold 50-foot and 100-foot rolls of Romex, and we cut it to length.” His business also sold things like screws and nuts and bolts by the piece instead of in packages, and helped customers plan their projects. “We were able to sell our business,” he said. Over the decades, though, much of the rest of McGehee’s retail population died off. The town still has one small grocery store and two dollar stores, but city leaders estimate Wal-Mart gets 40 percent of all retail transactions in the town. And that number is what’s behind the town’s push to save their Wal-Mart. McGehee has a two-cent local sales tax, equally divided between the town’s general government fund and McGehee-Desha County Hospital. Cut out Wal-Mart, and both the city and the hospital lose an estimated $16,000 a month each. It’s a hefty chunk of change in a town the size of McGehee. The city would have to cut services if Wal-Mart closes, no doubt — meaning less fire protection, fewer police officers, a rollback in the frequency of garbage collection. “We want to maintain those services as long as we can, but if our income’s cut, we’ll have to make the adjustments,” he said. But it’s the hospital that’s first in everyone’s mind. To hear Poole and others in McGehee talk, the loss of Wal-Mart is almost certain to mean the loss of the hospital, which serves between 9,000 and 10,000 people in this corner of Southeast Arkansas. Hospital CEO John Heard says the situation isn’t quite so dire. Losing $200,000 to $300,000 from a total budget of $8 million would hurt, he said, but the hospital wouldn’t have to close, and probably wouldn’t have to lay off any employees. But it would have to cut back on buying and replacing equipment like CAT scanners that are essential both to treating patients and keeping up with other area hospitals. So when word came early this year that Wal-Mart’s corporate office was close to shuttering the McGehee and Dumas stores — both old, cramped, outdated and, in the case of the McGehee store at least, reportedly less profitable than Wal-Mart would like — and building a new Supercenter in Dumas to serve both towns, local elected officals went into crisis-management mode, and the rumor mill went into overdrive. “All you got to do is change coffee shops” to get a different version of the latest news, Poole said. State Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, with the support of Wal-Mart officials, proposed legislation to allow a special revenue-sharing agreement between the two towns for sales tax money a Dumas Supercenter would bring in. But Dumas officials said local law there — sales tax money by statute is earmarked to pay off bond debt — would prevent such an agreement. Nor was building halfway between the two towns an option for Wal-Mart, because of the lack of police, fire and water/sewer service, and the geographical oddity of “halfway” actually being in another county. And while folks in McGehee said they’d be happy just to keep their small, old Wal-Mart, there’s a general acceptance that demographics can’t justify keeping McGehee’s store open if a Supercenter comes to Dumas. So the folks in McGehee started pleading their case with numbers. Drive through Dumas and McGehee on Highway 65 and it’s easy to get the impression that Dumas is considerably larger and more prosperous. Three supermarkets, several fast-food restaurants, and a stream of other businesses line the highway. There’s a general impression of hustling and bustling. McGehee, on the other hand, never developed to that extent along the highway. Clower insists there’s a lot more going on away from 65 than in Dumas, but there are plenty of empty storefronts no matter what part of town you’re in. In Dumas, there’s a distinct lack of activity related to the coming Supercenter, at least compared with what’s been coming out of McGehee. The prevailing dynamic seems to be patient certainty. “It’s really not an issue here,” said Terry Hawkins, publisher of the weekly Dumas Clarion. “The presumption is they will build a store here, that they’ve tried to accommodate McGehee, but there’s not a lot they can do.” Dumas Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ramona Weatherford said that several years ago, she worked with Wal-Mart officials to put them in touch with owners of the property on Highway 65 that they’d settled on as the probable location of a future Supercenter. “As you and I speak, there’s crops growing out there,” she said. The fact that Wal-Mart has yet to make an official announcement doesn’t worry folks in Dumas, Hawkins said. “I don’t think there’s any concern here [about the Supercenter going to McGehee] because I don’t think that’s an option,” he said. T.C. Pickett, Dumas’ acting mayor, said his understanding of Wal-Mart policy is that the company doesn’t like to locate rural Supercenters within 40 miles of each other. Dumas, he said, is about 42 miles from Pine Bluff’s Supercenter, and about 38 miles from the one in Monticello. McGehee, on the other hand, is 26 miles from Monticello. Weatherford said Dumas would feel the loss if their Wal-Mart closes and the Supercenter goes to McGehee, but she acknowledged that Dumas’ other retailers would soften the blow. The leaders and residents of McGehee, however, say McGehee’s the better location for a Supercenter. They point, for instance, to population figures. Dumas actually has only about 600 more people than McGehee, and both lost about the same number of people between the 1990 and 2000 censuses. Throw the town of Dermott into the mix — population 3,562 and growing, just seven miles south of McGehee — and Dumas comes in second. (Gould, 8 miles north of Dumas, has just 1,236 residents.) Over at McGehee High School, a small group of students under the guidance of teacher Tami Baker has taken on the Wal-Mart issue as a project. “The students are more concerned about it than their parents are,” said Brittany Snow, who, like a number of students, is the child of a hospital employee. “They’re the ones who are getting out of school and will have to leave to find jobs.” The students have gathered numbers of their own, including crime statistics that they say show McGehee is definitely the safer of the two towns. “Basically in everything, Dumas had higher percentages, especially in drugs,” Brittany said. They’ve also put together information on the planned Interstate 69, whose Canada-to-Mexico route is slated to pass just north of McGehee’s city limits. It’s a decade, maybe two, away from becoming reality, but when it does, they say, there’s no question McGehee will be the better site for Wal-Mart. The students also developed a survey at the request of Jeffress, with the goal of showing that McGehee residents would shop at Monticello rather than Dumas, even though Dumas is closer, if they couldn’t shop in McGehee. (They haven’t actually conducted the survey yet, but it seems to be conventional wisdom in McGehee that Monticello’s charms — a movie theater, more shops, and its position as not McGehee’s rival — would prove the greater draw.) They planned a rally in front of the store, which they postponed at the request of Wal-Mart community affairs manager Ryan Horn, who set up a conference call with the students in exchange. And they spurred a campaign of phone calls and e-mails that apparently hit their mark: Wal-Mart passed along word to the mayor recently that it was time for the students to back off. Baker said she has reluctantly agreed to go along, but that her students are ready to fight if Wal-Mart’s decision goes against the town. Which brings us to another element of our story: The art of tightrope-walking. Publicity may be the most powerful weapon McGehee has. It’s a common refrain that Wal-Mart drives small-town businesses under, but stories of what happens if Wal-Mart leaves are rare at best. “You don’t want a state senator from this area proclaiming Wal-Mart shut down X number of small businesses when it came into town a few years back and now is going to pull the rug out from them,” Jeffress said. But Wal-Mart’s corporate heartstrings aren’t exactly known for being easily tugged at, and the company loathes bad press. So Poole, Clower and others in McGehee know that shining the spotlight on the town’s plight could backfire. (Although it’s hard to argue the cat’s even remotely still in the bag. The story’s been covered by the Pine Bluff paper, and Poole said all three Little Rock TV stations have made trips to the local hospital.) “It’s a balancing act you have to try to play,” Mayor Poole said. “We don’t want to offend them, but at the same time we want to give them all the information we have.” Poole did cooperate with Wal-Mart real estate manager Matt Sitton’s request to keep his visit to McGehee about three weeks ago as low-profile as possible. Poole and a couple other community leaders met with Sitton, giving him a tour of the area and information such as Census figures on the population of the surrounding rural area. Clower wasn’t in on the meeting, but said he helped put together the package of information. “We said, ‘McGehee plus Dermott is bigger, plus we’ve got I-69 coming. Wouldn’t you all be interested in that growth?’ ” Whether any of their efforts will make a difference in the long run is anyone’s guess at this point. Horn, the community affairs manager, said recently that there’s no truth to the rumors that the company has already bought or even optioned land for a Supercenter in Dumas. “Rumors really got ahead of us here,” he said. Poole said Sitton told him he expected the corporate powers to make a decision in the next month or two. Sitton “was very receptive,” Poole said, and in fact Poole, Heard and Clower all said the Wal-Mart officials they’ve dealt with have been nothing but gracious. Still, Poole acknowledges, “We’re looking at it as survival. I think it’s more important to us than it is to them.”
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