February 23, 2003

Dividing the dollars

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR Staff
khelms@starhq.com

   Antitrust attorney Carl E. Pierson has created a "Wal-Mart and Globalization Website" which attempts to pull together the various arguments made in support of and in opposition to Wal-Mart expanding into a community.
   According to Pierson, purchasing from big box superstores can be detrimental to small towns, depriving communities of activities often paid for or supported by local small businesses, but not superstores: Activities such as Little League, parades, 4-H Club activities, Scouting, adult sports leagues, and more.
   Pierson contends that the "dimes, quarters and dollars you save at a superstore put the small competing stores (your neighbors, relatives and friends) out of business and deprive your community of what made it a community, leaving you and your friends, relatives and community with a windowless big box surrounded by a vast parking lot, which at any time could be vacated when the superstore determines that it wants all of its customers within a 35-mile radius to shop at an even larger superstore."
   Pierson says consumers should look at the pros and cons of dealing with a superstore and decide for themselves what to do. He recommends consumers make their purchases in a responsible way "not only from the standpoint of saving a few dollars when traveling to a superstore ... but in looking at the cost to yourself, your friends and relatives, and your community by reason of your purchasing choices."

Between a rock & a hard place

   Johnny Mills, owner of Mills Greenhouse in Elizabethton, questions why Elizabethton is so quick to embrace a Wal-Mart Supercenter, but says he believes one reason is because this area "has had nothing but bad news for about three years," with jobs and industry leaving the community.
   "We're like a child and we've gone a lot of Christmases without presents. And all of the sudden, here's a bright shiny thing: People coming in saying, 'We're going to spend a lot of money. We're going to build you this brand new place and we're going to light it up.'
   "As a community, we're embracing that. Even though this bright shiny thing looks appealing, it's got a lot of thorns in it. But we're willing to overlook that because we've had so little good news in so long."
   Mills said he does not have a problem with North American Corp. owner Charles Green selling his property to whoever he wants. "My problem is not with Charles Green."
   In a small town, he said, "We're supposed to be able to talk about things and have different viewpoints without making enemies with each other. So when this is over with, the people who are my friends that are for it, they're still going to be my friends. I'm not making this personal, but I can't see where this is a good thing for our community.
   "A super Wal-Mart duplicates every job service that we have in this community. It brings not one new product, not one new job, not one new anything to our community. In my mind, all it does is dilute the number of dollars that we have to go to the present merchants."
   As opposed to another Wal-Mart, Mills said, "If anybody came in here with a factory or jobs that are not presently in the community, then I think we ought to get a band and go down to the west end of town and lead them into town."
   While Wal-Mart wants to be all things to all people, Mills said he prefers the small-town concept of being able to visit with his friends and neighbors as he conducts his business. "That's what a small town is all about. ... Go to Ed Peters and he'll find you a bolt or a screw in about five minutes and you can talk to him and see what's going on. You don't have to park half a mile away.
   "Super Wal-Mart is not that way. It's just not the fabric of a small town. I think we are hurting the fabric of a small town by having these folks in," he said. Ross Perot once referred to a "giant sucking sound" when businesses left the country after the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed. Mills says, "I think he was talking about a super Wal-Mart in a small town. That's the giant sucking sound.
   "If you just want to make a decision based on dollars and cents, you can write the numbers down, you can make them sound any way you want to, and you can probably make the case for Wal-Mart. But take it beyond that.
   "The girls selling the Girl Scout cookies, the battered women's shelter, every non-profit in this town has friends in this community that they can go to and say, 'Look, I need some help. Do you have any extra money for us?'
   "Now, if we succeed in putting out a lot of these folks, or some of these folks, then are we all going to have to go to the Supercenter down here and say, 'Look, we've got this project and we could use your help.' I guarantee you that the Supercenter is not going to be able to do what these businesses do," he said.
   "I'm sincere in my belief about this," he said, "but I'm willing to consider the other side if someone can convince me I'm wrong."

Undermining tax base

   Dixie Battery has been serving the community since 1927. Owner Sonny Mottern said he is against a super Wal-Mart coming in.
   "Wherever they've gone, they've killed a lot of Mom & Pop operations that have built the tax base. Now, they're going to come in and say they will help with jobs -- but how many jobs are we going to lose when they shut down everything else? Where are these people going to go get jobs? They're not a very high-paying outfit," Mottern said.
   He expects to lose some customers at first to the larger Wal-Mart, because that usually happens when a new store comes in. But his ace in the hole is service.
   "They'll go there and once they find they can't get the service, they come back. We've been here since 1927. It's kind of hard to last that long in a little town without personal service."
   Mottern said he personally signed one of the petitions to keep out the new Wal-Mart. "I'm just against them moving in, period. They need to get plants in here, something that puts money into the economy instead of something that takes it away and takes it to Arkansas. They can fight it by saying the wages are going here in Carter County, but the profits are not."
   Once competition has fallen by the wayside, don't look for Wal-Mart's "low, low prices" to remain, according to Mottern. "After you get a monopoly, you can do whatever you want to."

Bottom line on prices

   Sam Snead, owner of Sam Snead Tires in Elizabethton, Bristol and Abingdon, is a survivor. He's survived the arrival of a Sam's Club in Bristol, a Wal-Mart at Exit 7 in Bristol -- less than a mile from his store -- and now is faced with the arrival of a Supercenter across the street from his business in Elizabethton.
   "I wish to the devil that it wouldn't happen. It probably will affect my business some, but it's not only my business it affects, it affects a lot of people. It'll put some people plumb out of business," he said. "I know for an absolute fact that it will make a difference."
   Snead said it has been his experience that a lot of people, including his customers, have to visit the Supercenter at least once. "Then they find out that in reality, my product -- which is tires -- Wal-Mart's are not really any cheaper than mine. I sold a set Saturday to a couple from Chilhowie or somewhere. They went to Wal-Mart up here in Virginia and then they came on down here. Whenever I priced them the tire, I just asked them: 'Am I competitive with them?' And she said yes. And of course they bought them. Had my prices not been competitive they wouldn't have bought them," he said.
   Snead is concerned the city will give away the farm by making concessions on property taxes and low-interest loans in order to lure the Supercenter "because they think they're going to hire people and they're going to do this, that and the other. But all they're going to do is take business from local people that's been here, and they're going to lay off people, and what does that gain? It looks to me like tit-for-tat. They're just putting it all in one basket."

The eyecare vision

   Dr. David Mills, an Elizabethton optometrist, also is opposed to a Wal-Mart Supercenter coming to town. "I think if they sell a dollar's worth of services that are involving my product, then it's affected my business and all of the other optometrists. It will affect all of the eyecare practitioners in the town."
   Customers tend to migrate to Wal-Mart's "perceived image of always the cheapest price," he said. "It's a far cry from necessarily so," according to Mills, but Wal-Mart's aggressive advertising campaigns have led consumers to accept it as gospel. "That's what people have in their head."
   Personally, Mills said he doesn't care for a Supercenter "because I don't want to do my grocery shopping there and I don't want to have to walk 5 miles to go get something I can go get in my current existing store in five minutes."
   Not only would a Superstore be inconvenient, he said, but Elizabethton will lose sales tax revenue from Johnson City customers who come into town to shop because they don't particularly like to go into the big stores.
   "If you looked at a positive note, it may bring some more restaurants -- and I'm talking about restaurants, not fast-food places, that we don't have now. I just don't know how needed it is, and it certainly won't help my business any," he said.

Worth the sacrifice?

   One Elizabethton merchant, who preferred anonymity, says Elizabethton stands to lose its precious small town atmosphere if a Supercenter drives smaller businesses out.
   "I can't think that we need another drug store. We have more drug stores than about any town in the United States for its size. Instead of somewhere else for people to spend money, we so desperately need industry. The people who have been here, who pay taxes here, who have tried to make a living here -- I think we owe them a little something for loyalty."
   Rather than more of the same, she said, Elizabethton needs "a department store, we need a shoe store, we need restaurants, we need liquor by the drink to get some decent restaurants. Every time I go to Johnson City to eat, all of these people from Elizabethton are over there. I'm a Christian, but it's not like if it's not here they're not going to drink it."
   When the North American and Bemberg plants closed, she said, "I thought it would be the end of Elizabethton. But we've survived, and I'm thankful. But it's hard to make a living in Elizabethton. We have banded together as a community, I think, and are trying to withstand the storm. The people that are here, we support the community. We're the ones that keep it going."