Hello Super Wal-Mart ... bye-bye downtown?

By Thomas Wilson

   "We appreciate your business ... We really do."
   So reads the sign prominently displayed in the Ledford's Upholstery Shop on East Elk Avenue in downtown Elizabethton. The store's owner, Bob Cable, a friend to elected officials and diehard University of Tennessee sports fan, was one of several downtown business people with opinions about a potential Wal-Mart Supercenter opening in Elizabethton.
   "It's probably good and bad," said Cable as he worked with thread and buttons in a store where "hand-made" isn't a catch phrase, but a way of doing business. "They've got a great selection and good prices, but it is not good for the small businesses."
   Cable's operation has been a fixture in downtown since he opened his doors in 1958. Memorabilia from the Vols sports triumphs and Tennessee's political potentates such as former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and ex-Gov. Don Sundquist decorate the nook around Cable's desk.
   The current Wal-Mart already deals in electronics, housewares and a clothing line. However, a Wal-Mart Supercenter adds two major components: a grocery store and a tire and automobile service center. Two imposing new competitors in a small town.
   Cable recalled the days of downtown Elizabethton when department stores such as Parks-Belk, Kress, Woolworth's and J.C. Penney were the top merchants. Downtowns across America underwent an exodus of merchants during the 1970s and 1980s when the malling of America sent major retailers to either the suburbs or bankruptcy court.
   Today, store fronts of independently owned furniture stores, jewelers and clothing stores lie between the brick arches along East Elk Avenue in downtown Elizabethton. The common denominator is familiar stores, owned by local people. The buildings date back decades and the clientele usually refer to them on a first-name basis.
   The dichotomy of loving and fear of a Super Wal-Mart was evident among many business owners and employees in downtown Elizabethton. While many said they loved to shop at Wal-Mart, they also acknowledged the Superstore's presence might not bode well for their own businesses.
   "I enjoy shopping there," said Joyce Simmons, assistant manager at R & M Electronics on East Elk Avenue, "but I think it would be a bad thing as far as small businesses were concerned."
   R & M offers a multitude of electronics equipment including Radio Shack brand products and has operated downtown since the Depression. Simmons describes it as "an old country store that sells electronics."
   "Do we need another grocery store in this town?" asked Joyce Birchfield, manager of Leta's Specialty Shop in downtown. Birchfield, like many residents, said she craved industrial citizens that provide wages suitable for residents to spend more money in the local economy. She worked several years at the American Air Filters plant prior to its closure.
   "I would love industry to get that land ... if we could get industry here," said Birchfield, who said her daughter had left the community to pursue professional opportunities elsewhere. "We need to get new jobs, not just transfer one group of jobs from one store to another."
   The legendary Barnes-Boring Hardware has sold hardware goods for decades from an East Elk Avenue store front.
   The hardware store's present owner, Jan Peters, bought the store in 1996 after the owner told her he could no longer compete with the existing Wal-Mart store.
   "We haven't tried to compete with Wal-Mart," said Peters. "We've tried to ignore Wal-Mart."
   A 1924 Model T Ford sits prominently in the doorway along with a wood stove, classic "Radio Flyer" red wagons and other hardware items. The store's ambiance suggests an era when Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House.
   Peters said the city had kept a thriving downtown with local specialty stores and retail businesses despite the exodus of large merchandisers two decades ago. A point she felt could be jeopardized by a Supercenter.
   "We've not seen that happen here, but it could turn it into a ghost town," she said.
   Jackie DeForr, owner of the Bloomin' Book Shelf on West E Street in downtown, said a Wal-Mart Supercenter had an undeniable draw for prices and selection.
   "I have shopped at Wal-Mart," she said. "I've always tried to shop with local retailers if I could, but there's been so many other places have closed up you end up going there."
   DeForr said she came to Elizabethton in 1984 when manufacturing plants and downtown business had a considerable size to the economy.
   "It just seems like it is always going away and nothing is replacing it," she said.
   What concerns DeForr more is the Northern Connector highway project that will divert traffic around the city's business district to the Highway 91/Highway 19E interchange. A great deal of business came from North Carolina tourists who journeyed through downtown Elizabethton to reach Elk Avenue, DeForr said.
   Connie Bowery, owner of Connie's Boutique in downtown, also felt a Super Wal-Mart would have an adverse impact on locally owned businesses.
   "I feel like it would hurt the small businesses," she said. "You are one-stop shopping for everything."
   Bowery's boutique is one of several locally-owned stores that operated for three years downtown. Most perplexing to Bowery was how many people -- including Elizabethton residents -- knew very little about what was in their own downtown.
   "A lot of people don't realize that there are businesses in downtown," said Bowery, whose store sells swank women's clothing, jewelry and accessories. "I'd like to see something other than a Super Wal-Mart ... something a little different."
   The opening of the Wal-Mart store in 1988 forced the Luke Brumit Sports Store on East Elk Avenue to change its way of doing business. Glenn McQueen, a longtime associate with the store, said a Supercenter couldn't damage the store's business any further than it had already been hurt.
   "When it came here, it affected us greatly," said McQueen. "We carried a little bit of everything."
   The store once carried fishing poles and reels, hunting gear and an athletic shoe department. Those products are gone, replaced by specialty sports equipment or by nothing at all. The trick to surviving Wal-Mart's lower prices and mass distribution system, McQueen said, was finding a way to do what the super chain retail stores wouldn't or couldn't do.
   "You can't fight them, you can only adjust to do something they can't do," said McQueen. "You've got to adapt your business to live with them and find something else to sell."
   Today, Brumit Sports markets apparel bearing the insignias of local high schools and middle schools. The store also generates business with trophy and plaque engraving and dealing in various rare sport collectibles.
   That may be easier said than done. In addition to its owner merchandise, Wal-Mart also leases space inside the store for specialty shops including photography, salons and banking. Many Supercenter locations also sell gasoline.
   McQueen also noted that beyond low prices, Wal-Mart had become a social gathering point for many city and county residents. The store's popularity had elevated it from a mere retailer to a living entity in the nation's culture.
   "You can't stop progress," he said. "It is just a fact of life."