In the 1997 Wal-Mart Annual Report, the Mayor of Rutland, Vermont is pictured with three Wal-Mart employees proudly touting the new downtown Wal-Mart location as the “rebirth of Rutland.” A town of 18,000 people, Rutland was described as “suffering a slow death” by the Mayor who brought in Wal-Mart as the savior. The local newspaper, the Rutland Herald, gushed that Wal-Mart was “the payoff for years of work by numerous people in the community who have refused to give in to drift and defeatism.” Then Mayor Jeff Wennberg added, “What Wal-Mart represents is economic prosperity and growth in our central business district, because they are such a phenomenal draw. The Wal-Mart opening is the jewel in our crown.” But seven years later, the jewel may be falling from its setting. The Associated Press reported this week that Wal-Mart officials have had to backpedal on a claim by a company employee that the giant retailer wants to close its store in downtown Rutland. The AP reported that Wal-Mart personnel manager Beverly Delpha told a group of city officials this week that the company was interested in moving out of the location. “Wal-Mart wants to move out of the city,” Delpha said. “Some of you already know that.” Delpha said Wal-Mart didn’t want to go, but problems with drug-related thefts and the store’s size were obstacles to staying in the downtown. The big problem here is size. The Rutland Wal-Mart, which went into a dead Kmart, is “only” 76,000 square feet, roughly 2 acres in size. But that’s small by Wal-Mart’s current standards. A Wal-Mart supercenter is nearly three times larger — and much more profitable. A spokeswoman at Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., confirmed that the company has no plans to leave or expand at the plaza. “We have no plans for a superstore and we’re very happy at the location,” said Mia Masten. “We’re fine with the store and we have no plans to go anywhere.” “A lot of our associates want a bigger store,” she said. “I think she was speaking from a personal level. I can say officially that there are no plans. If there were to be a public announcement, it would be from me. That’s my job.”
Several years ago, I was doing a radio show from WAMC in Albany, New York. On the show with me was Wal-Mart spokeman Keith Morris. The show turned to the subject of the Rutland downtown Wal-Mart. Morris told listeners that the Wal-Mart store was “underperforming” at the time. I told that story to the Rutland Herald, which responded with a story quoting Wal-Mart as saying that the store was underperforming. The company was disappointed then, and appears still disappointed, with the low sales they are getting out of this small store. One thing is clear, the ‘economic prosperity’ that was promised with Wal-Mart’s arrival in Rutland seems to be less than meets the eye.