The state of Missouri is one of the most over-stored areas for big box retailers in the nation. Sam Walton boasted: “In the Springfield, Missouri area, for example, we had 40 stores within 100 miles.” As of the end of 2002, Missouri had 61 Wal-Mart discount stores, 53 supercenters and 14 Sam’s Clubs. Missouri also has 13 “dark stores” that Wal-Mart has shut down for larger quarters. So it is not surprising this week to learn that 100 residents of Ozark, MO showed up for a public hearing about a proposed Wal-Mart, saying they have enough big boxes already. Wal-Mart, as usual, has not confirmed plans for a second store in Ozark, but the rumors have been circulating for nearly ten months. According to the Springfield News-Leader, Wal-Mart foes in Ozark turned out hoping to push a supercenter proposal out of town. A supercenter is proposed on US 65 just south of town. The Hometown Merchants Association, which represents over 150 area businesses, expressed grave concerns about Wal-Mart’s plans. “My biggest fear,” said Donna Kennedy, head of the Merchants Association, “is 20 years from now, if things continue, there may only be two big grocery business here. With the small businesses all gone, what are the prices going to be?” The Missouri Grocers Association has also opposed the idea of giving a company with deep pockets tax breaks to build their store. The News-Leader reported that Ozark Alderman Mark Spinabella agreed: “My personal opinion is we have not offered any other businesses in Ozark a major incentive to come or to expand. Why should we offer Wal-Mart incentives to come?” The Mayor of the neighboring town of Nixa, which already has a Wal-Mart supercenter, estimated that as much as 16% of sales tax revenue in his town will be lost if a supercenter is built next door in Ozark. Local officials also worry that if a supercenter goes up in Ozark, the existing Wal-Mart discount store further down Route 65 will close. Of the 13 Wal-Mart’s sitting empty in Missouri, half of them have been on the market for at least three years. In West Plains, MO, City Administrator Royce Fugate told the newspaper that at least one business has closed each year since a Wal-Mart supercenter came to town in the mid 1990s. Just this past week, a family-owned grocery store in West Plains for 70 years, closed, leaving 25 people without jobs. The owner John Richards, told the News-Leader that the Wal-Mart Supercenter drove him out of business. “We kept our prices probably lower than we should have,” Richards said. “We had two in-store butchers, carried groceries to cars and did some delivery. We tried to emphasize those services….Anybody that initially sells what Wal-Mart’s core products are should be scared. Hardware, clothing, grocery, general merchandise stores … almost everything.” Another casualty in West Plains was the 105 year old Aid Hardware store, which went under in 1990. Despite the loss of these long-standing family businesses, West Plains officials, who helped bring Wal-Mart in in the first place, continue to claim the supercenter has increased revenue and brought in people from outside the area. The Mayor of West Plains, Joe Paul Evans, told reporters ” There’s still an area for the specialized store that gives service and knows their customers by name.” Right, like stores that sell hand-painted shoe laces. Meanwhile, the families that built up his town are now part of its history.
I have rarely heard a Mayor who stumped to get a Wal-Mart into town ever publicly admit that they made a mistake. After all, this is how elections are lost. But towns like West Plains and Nixa must realize what is happening now. Their dreams of being a regional trade area, with people coming to shop from miles around, gets destroyed with each new Wal-Mart that gets built around them, and it becomes clear that the supercenter in their town was designed to clean the clock of businesses right in their town. “We became our own competition,” Sam Walton explained. Unfortunately, Mayors seems to be the last ones to get the picture. In the case of Ozark, to get a supercenter means closing down a discount store. The economic trade off is hardly worth it, since the supercenter will continue to force other existing merchants to shut down, and stop paying taxes. For contacts in Ozark, email [email protected] Search this database by “Missouri” for other local stories.