Nine times out of ten, the mainstream media writes stories about Wal-Mart that could pass as the company’s own press release. Typical of these stories, is the statement that a Wal-Mart opening means new jobs. But sometimes that claim is so preposterous, that even the local media can’t help but raise doubts. Consider this week’s story from Lewiston, Idaho, where Wal-Mart has a discount store for sale for $4.5 million. Wal-Mart store #2006 was built in 1993, and remodeled in 2001. The store is 116,892 s.f. — larger than most stores owned by its competitors. According to CB Richard Ellis, the real estate company which is selling the store for Wal-Mart Realty, there are roughly 56,000 people within ten square miles of this store. The broker says that Lewiston is Idaho’s only sea port to the Pacific Ocean via the Snake and Columbia Rivers. This empty Wal-Mart on nearly 15 acres of land is located on Thain Grade Road, the major thoroughfare providing access to 80% of commercial activity in Lewiston. Just down the road is a Macy’s, JC Penney, Sears and Gottschalks, along with a Home Depot and a Safeway. Richard Ellis notes that Lewiston, along with its neighboring community, Clarkston, Washington, just across the Snake River, has become a preferred retirement destination. What the marketing package neglects to explain is that Wal-Mart is shutting down its discount store in Lewiston, a city with 32,000 people, to open up a supercenter in Clarkston a city with less than 7,200 people. Wal-Mart has convinced local people that the move of just a few miles will create as many as 170 jobs, according to KLEW-TV. Despite this inaccurate job claim, the TV station cast a shadow over Wal-Mart’s ribbon-cutting. “That famous happy-face isn’t bringing smiles on the Idaho side of the river,” the TV station explained. “Nez Perce County is losing a big money maker, and now county clerk Patty Weeks says she’s wondering how they’ll pay their bills.” The reality is that Wal-Mart is walking out on Lewiston and Nez Perce County — just as they have done dozens of times before in other communities. They call towns like Lewiston, Idaho “towns that Wal-Mart killed twice” — once on the way in, and once on the way out. “It’s hard to say what the direct impact is going to be,” the county clerk noted, “but we also hope to see some of the other retail stores that are in Nez Perce County see an increase in business.” Nez Perce county was getting about $330,000 from the “old” store in Lewiston. The county was using half of that money to pay off a new jail they built. The closure of the Wal-Mart has imprisoned the county with a big jail bond payment to make. The county has to make a $400,000 jail bond payment next month. The county clerk says the August payment is not a problem — but by February, the county will need to scrape together nearly $2 million. The county will have to pull money out of property tax relief to pay off the jail. Even worse, the county is being brutally honest when it says that the new superstore in Clarkston may draw grocery sales away from the Safeway that was located near the Lewiston Wal-Mart discount store. Safeway has unionized jobs at higher wages than Wal-Mart. Safeway could survive with the Lewiston Wal-Mart on Thain Grade, because it didn’t sell fresh produce. In addition to the Safeway, there is an Albertson’s grocery store and several other grocers that will suffer as shoppers head to Clarkston for their food. The county says they won’t know how bad the economic damage will be until the superstore opens.
Nez Perce County has a couple of months to figure out their losses. The Wal-Mart superstore in Clarkston is slated to open on September 1, 2009. According to KLEW-TV, the old discount store will officially close the next day. The Clarkston store is clearly catering to the Lewiston population base, because a Wal-Mart superstore could never survive with only Clarkston’s small population base. On March 14, 2009, Sprawl-Busters wrote about Wal-Mart’s strategy in Idaho. Wal-Mart will not actually close on the building with a buyer until 90 days after its superstore opens, so as not to have the new owner compete with the new Wal-Mart facility. There is another Wal-Mart discount store in Moscow, Idaho roughly 22 miles north of the Lewiston store. The Moscow store is also slated to either be expanded or closed. In 1998, Wal-Mart had 9 discount stores in Idaho, and no supercenters. A decade later, there are only 3 discount store left, but 16 supercenters are open. In their shift away from the discount store format, Wal-Mart has wasted 15 acres of land in Lewiston, closing down a store in its 16th year of operation. Despite this history, other communities in Idaho are excited about the prospect of a new Wal-Mart coming to town. One real estate analyst interviewed by the Spokane, Washington Journal of Business admitted, “Wal-Mart is probably one of the only big retail stores that’s doing well in this economy.” The Arkansas-based retailer has submitted plans to add two new superstores to its count in Idaho, one in Post Falls, the other in Hayden. According to the Journal, the city of Hayden will be issuing a building permit for a 213,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. In Post Falls, Wal-Mart has applied for a 150,000 s.f. store, with a break-out wall to allow the structure to be expanded even larger. There’s more than potatoes sprouting in Idaho these days. Big box stores have enjoyed a path of least resistance attitude in Idaho, still a frontier state with little sense of land use controls. Cities like Post Falls have been growing dramatically since 1990. The Post Falls population has more than tripled since then — but by 2007 the population of Post Falls was still less than 26,000 people. Hayden, Idaho is also growing, but has less than half of the population of Post Falls. Neither community needs another Wal-Mart. Hayden residents are only 8 miles from the existing superstore in Post Falls on East Mullen Avenue. Post Falls already has a superstore, so the idea of a second superstore for a community of only 26,000 people makes little sense. Both of these proposed superstores should be seen as surrogates for a store in nearby Coeur D’Alene, a city with a population of 42,000 people, where there is no Wal-Mart. But even with Coeur D’Alene’s population added to the mix, there is no market need for two new superstores. Despite what it tells its shareholders, Wal-Mart continues to build new stores that cannibalize its existing stores, lowering its sales per square foot. Its reckless abandonment of hundreds of stores that still have useful life, like the one in Lewiston, is unprecedented in retailing history. Readers are urged to email the Chairman of the Nez Perce County Commissioners, Doug Zenner, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Zenner, By the Fall, your county is going to have an empty 116,892 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store on your hands. You still have time to pass a zoning amendment that requires landowners and developers to maintain their retail stores in active trade, or if a property fails to remain in continuous retail use for 12 consecutive months, it shall be torn down at the property-owner’s expense, and the land restored to its pre-development state. You can require Wal-Mart to put money into a demolition bond escrow account to pay the county to have their old building torn town, and have those 15 acres restored to a green state. You never thought you’d have to consider a demolition bond — but you never thought Wal-Mart would leave you with a major jail bond to pay either. Wal-Mart has used Idaho like a game of retail musical chairs, and when you see stores like Safeway or Albertson’s shut down by the Clarkston Superstore, you’ll know who pulled the chair out from under these merchants. People on the Idaho side of the river got the rug pulled out too. But now you can get some relief from Wal-Mart, if you act promptly.”