The city of Hartford, Wisconsin has less than 14,000 people. When the Wal-Mart supercenter opened on Thiel Street in Hartford on March 7, 2008, it was not hard to predict what would happen. “We are thrilled to join the Hartford community,” Store Manager Greg Wegner said in a prepared press release from Wal-Mart. “We strive to be a good neighbor in our communities… ” The head of the Hartford Chamber of Commerce was there at the opening to sing the giant retailer’s praises. “I think the store will bring a lot of growth to our area and also give our residents more options,” the Chamber director said. One year and seven months later, the West Bend Daily News carried a banner headline about the closing of a smaller grocery store called Sentry. Wal-Mart promised residents when its supercenter opened that the store would employ roughly 350 workers. But this week, residents of Hartford got a close up look at the downside of having a Wal-Mart — the dark side that the Chamber of Commerce failed to mention. Allison’s Sentry in Hartford won’t officially shut down until November 14th. But the store issued a press release thanking the community for “eight wonderful years” in Hartford. “With much regret we must discontinue operations in Hartford,” said a spokesman for owner Kevin Allison. Sixty full and part time workers will lose their jobs right before Thanksgiving. “We held on as long as we could, but unfortunately, due to the economy and slowing of sales and profits, we could not survive anymore.” The workers at Sentry only learned of the closing on October 5th. Even the bank manager who operated the Westbury Bank inside the store was caught off guard. Another smaller grocer several blocks away, made it clear what helped push Sentry over. “The Wal-Mart Supercenter didn’t help the situation and the economic downturn; people are spending less and retail sales are down for everybody,” said the owner of Rueben’s Country Market. On September 17, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Hartford had organized to prevent an annexation of land for this Wal-Mart. Their battle began in late February 2006 when 1,000 residents, business owners and concerned “others” signed a NO to Annexation/Wal-Mart petition. The petition asked the city to do economic, environmental, and traffic studies before allowing the project to continue. Those economic studies were never done. The Common Council eventually voted 7-2 in March, 2006 in favor of the annexation, and the city was thrown into political unrest, with a couple of ugly recall battles along the way. On February 10, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that Doug Cunningham, a former Nebraska senator and independent grocer, spoke at a meeting of the Hartford Citizens for Responsible Government. Cunningham warned that Wal-Mart was trying to get further into the banking and real estate business, and one day could control politics through its contributions and “education” of employees on how to vote. He argued that Wal-Mart offers only low-wage jobs, using high-pressure tactics with manufacturers and destroying small businesses. “It’ll be a disaster when they start controlling the money,” said Cunningham, who is a director of the Nebraska-based Hometown Merchants Association. Cunningham said that in 16 of Wisconsin’s counties that have Wal-Marts and optional county sales taxes, 10 saw faster growth in the previous five years before Wal-Mart came to town. Figures in the other five communities that have Wal-Marts were not available, because the company has been in those areas for less than a year. “When we spend our money locally, it’s recycled three to seven times in the community. When we spend it at Wal-Mart, that money, except for wages, is wired out of town,” Cunningham explained. “People need to get involved or they are going to get what they deserve,” said Cunningham. “One thing residents can do is educate the rest of the public not to shop there. It’s the consumer that’s guilty. We need to preserve the business we have.” But local officials paid no attention to Cunningham’s warnings — and now the city is learning that Wal-Mart is like the plague: it makes everyone sick, and kills off the weak. “Wal-Mart was too much for the local Sentry to handle,” said grocery industry analyst David Livingston, of DJL Research in Waukesha. Livingston told the Daily News that the demise of Sentry in Hartford had been predicted months ago by area grocers. “When the new Sentry store was built it never lived up to expectations… Now with Wal-Mart in the market, they’ve destroyed the Sentry and probably trimmed up [Rueben’s] Country Market,” Livingston told the newspaper, adding: “There’s only room for two grocery stores in Hartford, it’s not a big city.” A Piggly Wiggly grocery store owner in West Bend told the Daily News, “I’m guessing the Super Wal-Mart had a pretty big impact on the Sentry,” he said. “That’s kind of Wal-Mart’s theme, to take all the business they can.” “These Sentry’s are dropping like flies and I expect five or six more will close as well,” said Livingston.
Ironically, the same head of the Chamber of Commerce who went to Wal-Mart’s ribbon-cutting and extolled the superstore, now has a different message in the wake of the Sentry closing. “This is definitely going to impact Hartford in that they’re a great community supporter,” the Chamber’s Executive Director said. In fact, the Sentry store was the Chamber’s “Member of the Year” four years ago. Allison’s Sentry donates a 104 second shopping spree at the Annual Chamber dinner as a silent auction item. According to the West Bend Daily News, Allison’s Sentry “had a strong commitment to give back to the Hartford community.” The newspaper recalled that owner Kevin Allison donated more than 500 teddy bears to Aurora Medical Center and the Hartford Police Department for children who needed something to hug. Now there is no one left to hug Kevin Allison or his laid off workers. “Nothing is more rewarding then being able to give back to the community,” it says on the Allison Sentry store web site. “We are proud to have served the Hartford community,” the Sentry said in its prepared message to the community, “and wish all of our community business members the best in these hard economic times. We may be gone, but hopefully not forgotten.” Readers are urged not to forget the two-faced Chamber of Commerce that welcomed in Wal-Mart, and then shed a tear for the local businesses it killed. Send an email to the Hartford Chamber of Commerce at: [email protected] with the following message:”I think the Chamber of Commerce in Hartford owes an apology to Kevin Allison for essentially selling out its local members for a national chain store. The Chamber should have known what would follow in the aftermath of a Wal-Mart superstore. According to the consulting firm Retail Forward, two grocery stores will close for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens. So who will be next to fall? The Country Market? A Piggly-Wiggly? The Chamber told residents the Wal-Mart would “bring in a lot of growth.” You were wrong, and the closing of the Sentry was hastening by your actions. You have helped to gut your own local membership, and the Chamber owes an apology not only to Kevin Allison, but to all the local members who have carried your organization for years.”