Wally World War: Mom and Pop Shops Prepare for Walmart's Inevitability

Oh, how I laughed after learning that the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce was hosting a presentation on "How to Survive Walmart" Thursday night!  

Not being a Chamber kind of a gal, I had to wait for Michelle Monroe's account of the soiree to appear in the Weekend Messenger; but I knew it had hit home when a local hospitality business owner from Franklin, Vermont, hailed me on my front lawn and launched into the need for downtown retailers to stay open late.

She assured me there would be no problem competing with the Walmart if they just do that one teenie thing.

I replied that perhaps that would be economically feasible now that the City has begun investing heavily in sidewalk-scaping to encourage foot traffic downtown, but pointed out that the cost of staffing, heating and lighting a shop after five PM must somehow be offset by sales during that longer work day. She agreed and dropped the subject.

The doors of our very own St. Albans Walmart are projected to open barely four months from now. Interesting time to consider the area's mom and pop shop "survivability."

Back ten years ago, when the Northwest Citizens for Responsible Growth — of which I am a charter member — naively offered to host a presentation or panel discussion on the potential impacts of a Walmart locating in St. Albans Town for the Chamber, we were politely put off. It took us a while to realize that they weren't interested in hearing from anyone who might rain on their parade, but eventually we got the message.

Over the intervening years, we have been told by the powers that be, over and over again, that a Walmart in the Town could only have a positive effect on downtown retail.  

Surely all kinds of new customers will flock to the streets after visiting that novel and amazing new retail option located conveniently and immediately, right at the highway exit!

These people will have plenty of cash in their pockets and downtown retailers have only to divine what they can sell that Walmart doesn't already sell as cheaply as possible. What could be so hard about that?

Oh, yes; and downtown retailers will have to keep their shops staffed and powered into the night on the off-chance that a few sated discount shoppers will feel the need to drop some serious cash downtown.

Sounds like a winning formula to me! And to make the pitch to local Chamber members, the FCCC brought in the poster girl for downtown success in the face of Walmart: Ruth Taylor of Littleton, New Hampshire. Ms. Taylor is routinely asked to do similar presentations all over because things seemed to have worked out just fine in Littleton . . . but only in Littleton.

Retail in surrounding communities has simply dried up and blown away.  

That's because those surrounding communities, like St. Johnsbury, Vermont, don't have the secret ingredient, which is money, lots and lots of money.  

The money comes from various sources: donations, state funded downtown revitalization programs, etc. Little of the money appears to stem directly from Walmart, but rather from the threat of its impact, which serves to prime the pump and unlatch the coffers.

The money goes to things like streetscaping, gentrification, open-air events, etc. It is not made entirely clear whether the primary retail visitors downtown are routinely coming to Littleton to shop at Walmart before progressing downtown or visiting downtown Littleton for its attractions before stopping at Walmart as they leave town. Put simply, is Walmart the draw or just the bonus feature?

Be that as it may, Littleton does derive some property tax income from the fact that Walmart is operating on their soil.

In this important way, St. Albans' situation differs markedly from that of Littleton. The City of St. Albans, where the traditional downtown is located, will have no claim to tax generated by the St. Albans Walmart, because all those monies go to the Town of St. Albans, which has absolutely no interest in sharing.

The City has some equivalent funding sources right now because they have been awarded a TIF district and got a little chump change from developer Jeff Davis in exchange for withdrawing their appeal of his Walmart permit.  

That is, however, a finite situation, so I am glad to see that they are striking while the iron is hot. But there are no guarantees for the future if Walmart dampens the anticipated property value boosts from the TIF. And this is a very real possibility that has played out in many locations across America.

In fact, even the Town of St. Albans seems to be questioning how profitable the location of Walmart in their community will be, once the cost of infrastructure maintenance and policing is taken into account. The Town Selectboard has already attempted to get permission from Town voters to impose a 1 percent local sales tax in order to offset anticipated shortfalls.  

The voters turned them down; but I am told that the local sales tax isn't necessarily dead because, in the same election, the voters accepted a charter proposed by the Selectboard. If my information is correct, the charter gives the Selectboard the privilege of imposing a local sales tax without returning to the voters for permission to do so.

So that's bound to get interesting. . .

Even if, by some miracle, the Littleton model can be successfully duplicated in St. Albans City, the remaining towns in Franklin County seem destined to become retail deserts.

Is Walmart in St. Albans survivable? I suppose that depends on your definition of the word.

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