It’s a pretty safe bet that if your community has a Wal-Mart discount store, it’s either going to get bigger, or shut down. On December 7, 2007, Wal-Mart announced that it was closing its discount store in Saint Martinville, Louisiana on Highway 31, forcing shoppers in this small city to travel to one of the 7 other Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of Saint Martinville. They could go to the brand new Wal-Mart supercenter in Broussard, Louisiana, which is 7 miles away. Or, they could venture to the supercenter in New Iberia, Louisiana 10 miles away. Or, they could travel 13 miles to the Wal-Mart supercenter in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The truth is, the city of Saint Martinville, with a population just over 7,000 people, is not much more than a wide spot in the road for the giant Wal-Mart corporation. Their Saint Martinville store was choked off by a saturation of newer supercenters. Saint Martinville joined the long list of ‘communities that Wal-Mart killed twice’ — once on the way in, and again on the way out. Although the citizens of Saint Martinville have every reason to feel abandoned by Wal-Mart, the shoppers of Saint Martinville will still flock to buy their cheap Chinese imports at the store that left them behind. The Saint Martinville Wal-Mart is older and much smaller than the newer stores being build today. But it generated about 20% of the city’s sales tax base. City leaders said at the end of 2007 that they hoped adding some new stores in the city would help make up for the revenue loss. But that has not happened. Wal-Mart’s manager in Saint Martinville told the local media that their Highway 31 store would stay open until the Broussard supercenter was open. The Wal-Mart workers in the Saint Martinville store would be offered jobs at other locations. To some residents who know the history of this Wal-Mart store in Saint Martinville, the retailer’s decision to leave the city may seem more than a little ungrateful. That’s because this Wal-Mart on North Main Street, was opened in 1981 thanks to corporate welfare from Louisiana taxpayers. Wal-Mart was given a $3.725 million subsidy to open — in the form of an industrial revenue bond. Wal-Mart is not an industrial enterprise, and it certainly did not need a public subsidy then, or now. On October 23, 2008, Wal-Mart issued a press release announcing the opening of the 184,000 s.f. supercenter in Broussard. Wal-Mart said the new superstore would “support the local economy through 300 new jobs, low prices and additional sales tax revenue for the Broussard community.” They didn’t mention the lost jobs and sales tax in nearby Saint Martinville. In Broussard, City Councilman Johnnie Foco was quoted in Wal-Mart’s press release as saying, “We’re excited about the new jobs Wal-Mart is creating. More jobs and increased sales tax revenue mean more police cars, more fire trucks, more city workers and more benefits for the city of Broussard.” It’s true that Broussard will need more fire trucks and police to service their huge superstore. In its press release, Wal-Mart tossed in a one-liner about the city that hosted its first store in the area for 27 years. “Wal-Mart entered the local community in 1982 when it opened at 2310 N. Main in Saint Martinville.” The company then added: “By relocating to Broussard as a Supercenter, the store adds more than 140,000 square feet and will feature new services and merchandise. The Broussard Store Manager, Chris Smith, was quoted in Wal-Mart’s release as saying, “Many associates joined because they know they have the opportunity for a long-lasting career at Wal-Mart.” Many of the “associates” in Saint Martinville who had to re-apply for their jobs at the Brousssard store, may have grown cynical about the idea of a “long-lasting” career at Wal-Mart — especially since their store was closed out from under them. On November 24, 2008, Sprawl-Busters presented an update to this Saint Martinville story. According to the KLFY TV news, Wal-Mart shut its doors in September, “and residents are still getting adjusting to the vacancy… Wal-Mart’s closing means the residents of the small Saint Martin Parish town have to venture all the way to Broussard to find a comparable retailer. Many residents say the inconvenience affects their daily routine. According to Mayor Thomas Nelson there were no current bids for any retail stores to fill the vacancy that Wal-Mart left. But on February 3, 2009, KATC Channel 3 TV reported that business had picked up in Saint Martinville since Wal-Mart left. The station reported that local business owners call Wal-Mart’s closing a blessing. “I’m excited about them not being here, cause we can pick up extra items, extra sales,” said Robert Cade, owner of Cade’s market on Main St. Cade described Wal-Mart’s leaving as like a small weight lifted off his shoulders. “We have that personal touch with everybody with all our customers, so that’s the things that we do here, that people won’t leave town for,” Cade added. “Anytime you have any competition, you don’t wanna see them come in, it takes a little piece of your pie, you know, we’ll fight for everything we can get!” Mayor Thomas Nelson reports that in the four and a half months since Wal-Mart has been gone, business at mom and pop stores, dollar stores, and local markets have picked up considerably. Even better, the Mayor came up with a re-use plan for the empty Wal-Mart store. “One of the things I’m concentrating on is the off-track betting with Evangeline Downs,” the Mayor told KATC. The abandoned 6.5 acres is now being transferred to the city. Wal-Mart’s regional director and the Mayor have been working on having the building and land donated to the city for more than two years now. The Mayor claims that he’s getting proposals for recycling the space. It may turn out that the Mayor was safer betting on horses than putting his money on Wal-Mart as a long-term neighbor. This week, Mayor Nelson reports that he’s close to finishing up his deal with Evangeline Downs. At the April 6th meeting of the Saint Martinville City Council, Mayor Nelson made his pitch for offtrack gambling. The next step in process will be a public hearing on April 23rd, where the Mayor is betting that Evangeline Downs will be the odds on favorite to fill some of the space that Wal-Mart left behind.
Several hundred years ago, the nearest village to the present-day city limits of Saint Martinville was an Attakapas Indian settlement, located further south on Bayou Teche. The Bayou Teche has a part in Chitimacha Indian folklore. Legend tells of a serpent of fabulous dimension living in the Atchafalaya Basin. While being slain by Indian braves, the serpent’s writhing gorged out the Bayou Teche. “Teche” may be derived from the Chitimacha word for “snake”, and some say the Great River will one day avenge the serpent. It turns out that Wal-Mart is the modern-day snake that came to the Bayou Teche. Mayor Thomas Nelson likes to boast of his city’s “unique deep heritage.” The city’s motto is “Le Petit Paris d’Amerique.” When visiting Saint Martinville, you can stroll by the statue of Evangeline, or through the Evangeline Oak Park. But don’t bother to stop by the Wal-Mart store — its dark inside now. Readers are urged to contact Saint Martinville Mayor Thomas Nelson at [email protected] with this message: “Mayor Nelson, I am pleased to hear that business in your small city is picking up since the departure of Wal-Mart. As you may know, Wal-Mart has shut down many of its discount stores in Louisiana. Ten years ago, Wal-Mart had 56 discount stores in your state, and 10 supercenters. Today, there are only 7 discount stores left in Louisiana, and 74 supercenters. You welcomed Wal-Mart into your Little Paris, and now they have left you with a giant hole, just to move 13 miles away. Wal-Mart has treated your city like the great snake in the Atchafalaya Basin. It has bitten your city, and now it is gone. It’s time for Saint Martinville to make sure that no more national big box stores love you and leave you. Your city should pass a size cap on retail buildings to keep the big stores out. Let your local businesses return, let new entrepreneurs come to Saint Martinville, and replace the bad memories that Wal-Mart has left behind. You should also pass a demolition fee that requires any company that abandons a store for more than 12 consecutive months, to pay for the cost of demolishing their building, and restoring the site to its pre-development state. It’s the least Wal-Mart can do for the community it abandoned. Off track betting? It’s probably a safer wager to go with Evangeline Downs than pinning your economic hopes on a Wal-Mart. Who else is going to reuse that blighted property? No wonder Wal-Mart gave it away. They were probably thrilled to get out of town without having to pay the cost of ripping down their empty store.”