In recent days headlines have announced Walmart’s decision to close their experimental neighborhood stores just a few years after the pilot program began. For many this is just another announcement of a mega-retailer changing strategy in order to improve profits. But what is a small failure to Walmart has huge, real-life impacts on the small towns where many of these neighborhood stores were built. A few examples are Oriental, NC; Redwater, TX; Chicago, IL; and Rose Hill, Kansas. People lost jobs, but not before many towns lost their locally owned, family run grocery stores and pharmacies that had adequately served the same community through thick and thin for decades.
In Oriental, Town N Country, in business over 40 years, held on as long as possible against the monopoly and sadly closed at the end of October, 2015, less than three months before news came that the Walmart neighborhood market would be closing. Oriental is a quaint fishing village with a lot of quirky retired people. We didn’t make national news, but now we’re left with no grocery store and no pharmacy in our village of 900 people. Our marriage with Walmart cannot be annulled and it came with no prenuptial agreements, so we are left to deal with the mess left on our doorstep.
After Walmart checks its “experiment failed” box and dumps the dirt out of its boots on the way out of town, cleaning up is left to the people whose lives are massively affected by a corporate committee playing darts to cut costs. What they do in their shiny board room is a private affair until their fifteen minute decisions destroy people’s livelihoods and lives. Walmart’s “small” decisions have big implications for small towns. Where I grew up is now a food desert. I never imagined this could happen to my once self-sufficient town. My cousin, Doug, puts it well in these words in a Facebook post:
“Now, with the announcement, we are without a grocer for more than a thousand households. Some of those former Walmart shoppers are without transportation. The now closed local grocer and the soon to be closed Walmart store were walking distance for many low income residents. They no longer have a place to shop.”
The port of Oriental has always been a welcome one for sailors to stock up on supplies, including fresh produce and other groceries. Now many will arrive and see two former grocery stores barely a quarter mile from each other with boarded up windows. That is, until we figure this out, which we will, because we are a resilient town.
When Walmart’s plans to build within a stone’s throw of our town line interrupted our small-town way of life we learned a lot. We learned how nearly impossible it is to fight against a giant corporation and we learned how easy it is to lose even after giving everything; we didn’t have the resources, wisdom, or support in the right quantities and flavors. And our predictions came true. Walmart came. Check. Our pharmacy closed. Check. Our longstanding grocery store closed. Check. And now Walmart is leaving. All in under three years.
As a sociologist, I believe it’s vital to remind ourselves that this is not an isolated situation. This has happened before and it will happen again to other small towns. Yes, it’s our fault because of the decisions we made as a town, but at the same time there were secret strings pulled and promises and threats made to convince a few well-meaning people to make the wrong decision. A really big mistake kind of wrong decision. From the beginning I knew there was a lot against us as a small, rural, mostly retirement-age town on the water; and I also learned a lot about our unfortunate role as a victim, especially looking back. Here’s what wasn’t going for us:
- We’re geographically isolated. Exactly what makes the village so attractive; people come to Oriental because of its unique charm. The things worth preserving about Oriental are the very things that made it hardest for Oriental to fight back. We don’t have a stop light. Only people who know about us know about us. We hail as the Sailing Capital of NC, but only sailors know that. Everybody knows everybody. We were a prime target for a massive retailer to make an easy entrance to set up camp. People outside Oriental didn’t know much about what was going on, precisely what made us especially attractive to a corporation with no incentive to care if its experiment failed on our home soil.
- Those opposed to Walmart coming to town were naive regarding strategy. We also lacked a team of people who had the ability to put everything aside and give all their time and energy to a battle – a truly organized battle – to fight this to the end. Largely because the people who wanted to fight were so busy being awesome small business owners or had full-time jobs. I don’t blame them. Blame is certainly not appropriate. But this is not unusual for towns facing this battle. It takes a lot to organize a massive political fight; it becomes a full time job with little reward for those able to sacrifice themselves to do it.
- We lacked technical, social and mass media skills. A large number of Oriental’s population are retired and elderly and do not spend any or much time on a computer, much less social media, and preferred to remain out of a news spotlight. They saw this as a small-town problem that could be solved the same way we have always solved internal problems. But this reached beyond our usual debates about a building permit for a local fisher, busted water lines, or our next mayor. Some stated they did not feel comfortable engaging on social media; they preferred privately pitched personal appeals over public media-attracting appeals. This influenced how much we could educate and involve more people, especially dedicated seasonal tourists. Letters to the editor, in-home meetings, and casual encounters with local elected officials work for local issues but this was a matter where we faced a huge, international monopoly. A singular, one-on-one approach would not (and did not) get us far – towns that defeat Walmart use huge media campaigns and involve social media.
- We were vulnerable and had little power. Oriental vs Walmart would make for a comically short court battle because even in court battles it is about who has the money. There’s not much power in a group of small-town residents pitted against a mega-retailer, especially when the population is split across the aisle. We also faced a seemingly insurmountable roadblock: no control over zoning. Walmart was proposing to build just outside town limits, and Pamlico County (where Oriental resides) had NO zoning in place, something that is common in the south. We were stuck and we didn’t have much of an audience with the county. Fighting this battle was like pitting a rowboat against a cruise ship.
- We lacked a dedicated funding stream. Money is needed to hire land use attorneys and fund campaign materials, etc. People aren’t willing to fork over much money unless it’s all going to something that is really well organized that they can believe in. And we really tried hard to be organized – twice.
- We had no idea what we were doing. We were working from scratch so we didn’t know where to begin. And we didn’t ask for help from others who had been successful in defeating Walmart until later. There’s no way we could have known how to approach the Walmart fight because there’s no playbook for the victims. Only Walmart has a playbook.
- Our initial campaign was negative and overtly anti-Walmart (“No Walmart in ONC! Keep Walmart out!”). Those fighting to keep Walmart away were shocked and angry and our actions reflected that. We believed in ourselves, and we needed to. When this initial campaign wanted to hand over the reigns, many were burned out and lacked the energy or desire to remain as involved in the fight or join another campaign.
- Our second campaign, what the initial campaign became, Keep Oriental, NC Walmart Free (“Keep America’s only Oriental small and local”), was adopted and amateurishly led by myself and a friend, to whom I was introduced by my mother via email. We were two people with little time and little organizational power or experience in such things, but one thing we did have was the shared experience of having been raised in Oriental and our unwavering love of the place. One of us lives in Oriental and one in California (me). We had some small, unseen victories, but in the end we lost. And we put in everything we had. With every decision and action we shared worries that we wouldn’t adequately represent all those who opposed a Walmart, but with few resources we were limited in how much we could do.
- Our efforts for each campaign were largely individual and the movement was without direction and fraught with conflict. Stress was rampant: new details emerged daily and surprise meetings were called by the Town Board to expedite decisions before a quickly-approaching November election. Collaboration often hit a roadblock because of differing opinions for best approach – there was dissension among a small town known for getting along and we knew it and felt it deeply. Small towns are like families and we felt the strain. Anti-Walmart residents all wanted the same end result but it was difficult to find common ground on the most effective ways to approach the fight.
- We struggled to get media attention. We were successful with press releases and direct asks that attracted some reporters to attend a couple meetings, but a lack of media attention perpetuated our largely invisible and silent opposition. Our local media channels were hesitant to involve themselves expansively, not wanting to risk taking a stance. Local newspapers and websites did not want to polarize their audience – a tactic that seems juvenile when a whole town is at stake. Now that Walmart is closing, these same media outlets are publicly acknowledging the corporation is the reason our 40 year old grocery store had to close its doors.
- People gave up. I totally understand why – we got tired of having no control or say over the future of our town. We got tired of the strain with our neighbors. We got tired of losing. We got tired of knowing there was information that was not being shared with us. People got tired. Even people on the town board got tired, whose official vote could have mattered. Eventually many even became resigned to the idea that there was no keeping Walmart out, so before Walmart sealed the deal there were people talking about how to keep our local businesses open when the time came. The momentum died.
- Politics were weird. Walmart planned their property purchase to be just 300 yards outside Oriental so, even though Oriental would be affected the most, Walmart’s business would be handled with Pamlico County. Walmart even managed, with little push-back, to get Oriental Town Commissioners to agree to a deal that Walmart would donate some money to Oriental annually, in exchange for using town water, in exchange for Walmart agreeing not to be annexed into the town. The water issue gave them considerable power because those who could do something about it (county commissioners) didn’t care to fight a water issue that wouldn’t mean much to them.
- Our town leaders either refused to or could not comprehend the danger of allowing Walmart in, despite being presented numerous facts and compelling evidence of Walmart’s impact on small towns. Town board members argued job creation and money for the local economy. Some pointed out that they hadn’t heard opposition from a majority of residents, so they felt compelled to move forward with doing everything they could to keep Oriental the same town even with a Walmart. Some board members valiantly attempted to fight but with the understanding that their voice would not carry much weight with their colleagues. Those in support of fighting Walmart were forced to move their efforts to fight for the next best thing, which was everything Oriental could get out of Walmart when they came. People in opposition to Walmart felt they were fighting two battles: one against Walmart and the other against the Town Board.
- Fear. There was considerable fear among many to be publicly involved. People feared posting letters online or sharing open letters with signatures, some were hesitant to sign these open letters, and many didn’t feel comfortable gathering signatures and active support. There was fear about putting Oriental in the national spotlight. Some people who wordsmithed letters weren’t willing to put their own names on them as the authors. Some even said the battle had gotten too political for them. Oriental wasn’t a town known for engaging in door to door campaigns; we weren’t ready for a debate that could cause schism and division, so many people preferred to keep their opinions silent when they went to The Bean for morning coffee. There was a lack of desire by many to push for a serious public conversation, which made the campaign against Walmart seem like a petty thing that wouldn’t matter much in the long run. People once involved even said we should admit defeat. As my partner in the fight put it in a response to someone ready to throw in the towel, being involved was “very time-consuming and draining, not to mention socially challenging to our neighborly lifestyle.”
I fought hard, together with my main contact and partner, but also with many others who were committed to the end to save Oriental from Walmart. The Town Board didn’t listen. A deal was made. Walmart moved in. It’s not worth it to spend much time on details now, except hoping it helps another small town somewhere, fighting the same fight.
I am frustrated, confused, but also a bit proud and, sadly, vindicated. But mostly I feel angry. Angry that I couldn’t convince the powers that be of what they were doing to Oriental, angry they didn’t listen to the voices of their constituents, and really angry on behalf of the people who put their whole lives into running a small-town grocery store, who had to close their business just to discover their “competition” would be packing up and leaving town. We’re now a town with two boarded up buildings (come the end of January). One of those towns. I am still in shock. I said from the beginning that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t give everything I had to keep Walmart from destroying the town that raised me. My choice to be as heavily involved from my home in California shows my dedication and love for Oriental. And I did give everything I had – it wore me out and broke me. When Walmart moved onto the doorstep of Oriental my heart broke. And when I heard the news that Walmart would be leaving, I wanted to say, “I told you so,” but the emotions run deeper than that.
Where some of us failed – without being at fault because we didn’t know what we were doing – we all failed.
What I’d like to do is call out the people who got us into this mess. I’d like them to fix this – to find the money (it would take so much money) and support and energy to put Ruth and Renee back in business with the promise to support them better. To issue a formal and worthy apology for allowing their livelihood to be destroyed. To present a Thank You for their service and belief in our town, even after we made a conscious move to welcome Walmart two doors down. That’s what I’d like to do, cause shame and remuneration. But that wouldn’t be appropriate for a small town. Small towns stick together like families. We can come together, like we always have, and fix this. Together.
Oriental has always been a haven for boaters traveling down the Intracoastal Waterway. We are a stop for people to take a breather and enjoy the small-town vibe for a few days, a week, a month (some people just never leave!). We’re a town that loves being itself. And it is with that same spirit that I know we can pull our passions together again and unite to build up our town again.
It’s heartwarming to read letters to the editor on Towndock.net from people who are energized to fix this, both short-term and long-term. People are organizing rides for those who need help getting groceries and medications. The Provision Company has expanded its selection of fresh produce and goods. There’s plenty of talk about what to do with the two recently closed grocery providers with hope that someone will buy one of the buildings and open another grocery store. A group, The Oriental Food Initiative, is discussing the possibility of a co-op, with a public meeting on January 27th. People are helping, and that is the spark I’m so glad has not been lost (and could never be lost!) from Oriental’s spirit.
People are also pouring out support for Town N Country in forms of tributes and thank yous for Ruth and Renee’s hard work despite a town that left them fighting alone. Some of these people supported Walmart coming to town and believed Town N Country could survive. Others never wavered in their support of the store. Ruth and Renee deserve all the thanks they get. When my grandfather died a little over a year ago, Renee put together a box for us – tissues, sodas, chips, desserts – and called us to come pick it up. They didn’t have to do that. But they did, and it’s partly because my grandfather pledged in his last two years of life to only shop at Town N Country for everything. And he did. Faithfully.