by Ed Pilkington in McDowell County, West Virginia | Sunday 9 July 2017 12.55 EDT
In West Virginia, the people of McDowell County can’t get jobs, and recently lost their biggest employer – the local Walmart store. They describe the devastating loss of jobs, community and access to fresh food
When Walmart left town, it didn’t linger over the goodbyes. It slashed the prices on all its products, stripped the shelves bare, and vanished, leaving behind only the ghostly shadow of its famous brand name and gold star logo on the front wall of a deserted shell.
The departure was so quick that telltale signs remain of the getaway, like smoldering ashes in the fireplaces of an evacuated town. Notices still taped to the glass entranceway record with tombstone-like precision the exact moment that the supercenter was shuttered: “Store closed at 7pm, Thursday 28 January 2016.”
Ten years. That’s all the time it took for the store to rise up in a clearing of the lush forest of West Virginia’s coal country and then disappear again, as though it had never been there.
But for the people of McDowell County – proud country folk laboring under the burdens of high unemployment, low income and endemic ill health – even such a fleeting visit to this rural backwater by the world’s largest retailer had a profound impact. Both in the arrival, and in the hasty leaving.
Wanda Church was present for both of these book-ends of the Walmart story – one of a few workers who helped set up the store in October 2005 and then gut it 10 years, three months and two days later. She remembers the feeling of excitement and expectation as they stocked the supercenter for the very first time, turning it in just 20 days from an empty building into a teeming cathedral of retail capitalism.
“It was amazing what we were able to do, stocking the shelves from nothing to full in such a short time,” she said, talking as she waited for her car to be repaired at a gas station over the road from the disused store. As if to underscore her enduring attachment to the corporation, she was wearing one of her old Walmart T-shirts.
She was there at the supercenter, too, on that fateful day last year when she and her fellow Walmart workers walked out of the store for the last time. “We were all crying. It was a sad day for a lot of people. It was a sad day for me – I spent more of those 10 years at Walmart than I did at my own home.”
Much has been written about what happens when the corporate giant opens up in an area, with numerous studies recording how it sucks the energy out of a locality, overpowering the competition through sheer scale and forcing the closure of mom-and-pop stores for up to 20 miles around. A more pressing, and much less-well-understood, question is what are the consequences when Walmart screeches into reverse: when it ups and quits, leaving behind a trail of lost jobs and broken promises.
The subject is gathering increasing urgency as the megacorporation rethinks its business strategy. Rural areas like McDowell County, where Walmart focused its expansion plans in the 1990s, are experiencing accelerating depopulation that is putting a strain on the firm’s boundless ambitions.
Hit hard by the longterm decline in coal mining that is the mainstay of the area, McDowell County has seen a devastating and sustained erosion of its people, from almost 100,000 in 1950 when coal was king, to about 18,000 today. That depleted population is today scattered widely across small towns and in mountain hollows (pronounced “hollers”), accentuating the sense of sparseness and emptiness.
The Walmart supercenter is located about five miles from the county seat, Welch, which still boasts imposing brick buildings as a memory of better times. But the glow of coal’s legacy has cooled, as the boarding up of many of the town’s shops and restaurants attests.
When you combine the county’s economic malaise with Walmart’s increasingly ferocious battle against Amazon for dominance over online retailing, you can see why outsized physical presences could seem surplus to requirements. “There has been a wave of closings across the US, most acutely in small towns and rural communities that have had heavy population loss,” said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University who is an authority on Walmart’s local impact.
On 15 January 2016, those winds of change swept across the country with a fury. Walmart announced that it was closing 269 stores worldwide, 154 of them in the US. Of those, 14 were supercenters, the gargantuan “big boxes” that have become the familiar face of the company since the first opened in Missouri in 1988.
One of those supercenters was in McDowell County.
“It was a big thing for people round here when Walmart pulled out. People didn’t know what to do. Young people started leaving because there’s nothing for them here. It’s like we’re existing, but not existing.”
The words are spoken by Henrietta Banks, 60, who lives just up the hill from the mothballed supercenter. We’re sitting in her front room where she spends much of her time in a hospital bed that has been set up for her as she is treated for congenital heart disease.
She remembers the excitement when the supercenter opened. “People welcomed it with open arms, we needed the jobs,” she said.
But in the end the expectation that Walmart would usher in a new, better era for McDowell County proved illusory. Her late husband Arthur, a former sharpshooter in the US Army who died in 2010, worked as a greeter at Walmart for a few years. He took the job largely in the hope of securing healthcare insurance for Henrietta, but he was told that coverage wasn’t part of the package, and the couple had to make do with Medicaid.
Their daughter Nicole, 25, is sitting beside her mother holding her hand. She works as a corrections officer in a nearby prison, but her dream is to become a therapist.
Given her mother’s health issues, Nicole Banks tries to compensate for Walmart’s departure by seeking out fresh fruit and vegetables in the surrounding area. But it’s not easy. The nearest replacement store, Goodsons, is too expensive, she says, and other Walmarts are an hour’s drive away along Appalachian roads that are as tightly coiled as the copperhead snakes that live in the local forest.
Already, she spends half her $1,200 post-tax monthly salary on car insurance and repayments, and gas for the long drive for groceries eats into the little that is left. So she and her mom grab food where they can, opting for less pricey meals of hamburgers or spaghetti rather than fresh salad that takes another big chunk out of her income.
It’s not great for her mother’s health, but then Nicole thinks that’s typical for McDowell County people since Walmart left town. She has noticed that processed foods seem popular again; there are long lines again at the local McDonald’s.
“There’s a lot of people getting sick since the store closed because they’re not getting the right diet. It’s sad to me, but bad food is cheap.”
Nicole Banks is the first person in her family to go to college. With a degree in sociology, how would she sum up the impact of Walmart leaving?
She pauses to think for a while, and when she replies, she does so with unexpected vehemence. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “People round here can’t get healthcare, they can’t get jobs and now the good food has gone. We are not getting our basic needs met. People are dying young.”
Banks is not exaggerating. Of the 3,142 counties in the US, McDowell County comes in at No 3,142 in terms of life expectancy. For men, that’s 64 years, a statistic that, as Bernie Sanders likes to point out, is the same for men in Namibia.
Clearly, such endemic health problems cannot be laid exclusively at the door of Walmart. But for Sabrina Shrader, a community organizer who was born and bred in the area, it provides the context for understanding the effect of the corporation’s decision, and that of its controlling family, to pack its bags and quit.
“The Walton family are billionaires,” she said (also no exaggeration – their collective worth is put at about $150bn). “They developed a system that just made us worse off, and then they took even that away from us.”
McDowell County forms part of the largest mixed mesophyte forest in the world, a relic of the ancient woodland that once covered much of North America. Wherever you look, majestic sugar maples, hickory, oaks and tulip trees tower overhead, hugging the steep slopes of the Appalachians.
It was into this stunning setting that Walmart descended in 2005 on the site of an old Kmart, like the spacecraft of alien botanists that lands in the forest at the start of the movie ET. And there it sat: a massive gash of concrete encircled by nature’s abundance.
Peep into the glass doors of the front of the store and you can start to appreciate the brutal simplicity of the Walmart concept. There is nothing inside its windowless walls, just 103,000sq ft of air. A Walmart supercenter is no more, no less than the name implies: a big box, an empty stage on which to wave a magic wand and summon up a million retail dreams.
Pack it with 80,000 products, and the people will come. Not just from all over McDowell County, but from far beyond. Over the 10 short years of the supercenter’s existence, many of those people grew dependent on it in so many ways.
Top of the list of dependencies: jobs.
“It’s all about jobs,” says Melissa Nester, publisher of the local newspaper, The Welch News, which sells 4,500 copies three times a week and doggedly refuses to have a website. “Dollar stores have picked up some of the trade left by Walmart, but they haven’t created many jobs.”
At its peak, Walmart employed 300 people in the McDowell County supercenter. That was down to about 140 by the end, but it still made it the largest employer in the area.
Wanda Church has been unemployed since that day when she cried as Walmart’s doors were closed for the last time; the company offered her a night shift at the next store along, but she couldn’t stomach the hour’s drive either way and wasn’t prepared to leave her home. Other employees felt they had no choice and are either commuting long distances or have relocated to work at other Walmart outlets, some as far off as Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, some 375 miles away.
There were knock-on effects, too, for local businesses that used to tender to workers and shoppers drawn into the area by the supercenter. Restaurants in a radius of several miles from the store complain of empty tables, while houses and shops in its close vicinity are now up for sale.
“It has affected this place real much, nobody stays here no more,” says Jessie Swims, 67, sitting on a bench at the Big Four motel across the road from the supercenter, drinking a soda. Swims has lived in one of the motel’s 15 rooms for the past five years, paying $600 a month out of his retirement money. Big Four used to be full, he says, now most of the rooms are empty and it too has been put on the market.
After jobs, taxes are the next things to go. The town of Kimball in which the supercenter is located used to receive $145,000 a year in taxes from Walmart, and when that went it had to cut back its workforce and put all remaining staff on a four-day week.
The county government also lost $68,000 in taxes, most of which went to schools, and all its staff were given a 10% pay cut. “All Walmart was interested in was how many millions of dollars they made, they weren’t interested in helping the community,” says McDowell County commissioner Gordon Lambert. “When they didn’t make the profit they wanted, they left.”
Walmart’s total revenue in the year in which the company closed the McDowell County store was $485.9bn.
I asked Walmart why it quit McDowell County. A spokeswoman said that closing a store was never easy, but it was “a necessary part of keeping a business healthy and positioned for future growth”. A number of factors had driven this particular decision, she said, including “financial performance as well as strategic alignment with long-term plans”.
The company had worked with all the employees who had lost their jobs to find them suitable transfers or give them severance pay. “We look forward to continuing to serve our Kimball area customers when they visit our stores in Bluefield, Princeton and MacArthur,” she said, (without referencing the hour’s drive.)
Economic losses are only one aspect of the hurt felt locally as a result of Walmart’s passing. There is something intangible, less material – and more chilling – about the fallout, something that seems to flow from the dependency the people of McDowell County developed on the retail magic conjured up inside that big box.
It’s touched upon by Wanda Church when she tries to explain why she cried that day. It was because, she says, she lost her family when Walmart closed.
“The people I worked with, I relied on them if I needed help. The customers, they were our family.”
You hear it from Darrell Williams, 42, a truck driver picking wild raspberries on the side of the road to make a fruit cobbler. He recalls that his twin boys acquired their nicknames inside the supercenter. “My kids grew up in there. They called them the Screamers, because they used to scream if they didn’t get what they wanted.”
For Dan Phillips, Walmart was a way of coping with bereavement after his wife died a few years ago. “If you were lonely and had nothing to do, you’d go to Walmart to talk to folk. It was a great social network.”
Being a schoolteacher, Phillips has a theory for what happened when the store closed. “Socialization. We lost our socialization factor. Now it’s hard to keep track of people, there’s no other place like it where you can stand and chat.”
There was something else Phillips lost with Walmart’s departure. To illustrate the point, he reaches into his red pick-up truck and pulls out a loaded Para Ordnance Warthog .45 handgun and waves it at us, telling us not to freak as the safety is on.
“Bought this in the Walmart parking lot,” he says. “Guy sees me reading a gun magazine and asks me was I carrying. He offered to sell me the Para warthog and I got it for $775.” Phillips took his new possession home and added to his collection of 140 firearms.
“They screwed us real hard by leaving us like that,” he says, reflecting on the various ways his life has changed. “It’s so sad they thought they could just walk away.”
There are some rays of hope piercing through the dense ancient forest of McDowell County. Some families are trying to avoid the long drive to alternative outlets and the heavy prices by growing their own food.
In a hollow on Hensley Mountain, Alma McNelly, 53, affectionately known as “Maw”, and her husband Randy or “Paw”, live with 11 chihuahuas, a cockerel who wakes them at 5am every day and a horse called Snowman. Maw grows cauliflowers, tomatoes, carrots and strawberries. She shares the produce out to friends and family at the end of the pay month when times are lean and people start to go hungry.
She also collects six eggs a day from her brood of wyandotte hens. The only downside is that Paw doesn’t trust fresh-laid eggs unless they’re pickled, so she still has to make a monthly run to a supermarket to get factory-farmed eggs.
Down the road, Deana Lucion, 29, six months pregnant and with her 18-month-old daughter Trinity in her arms, tells us that she has started growing cucumbers, squash, peppers and corn. Her husband Phillip Lucion, 35, also supplements his income as a mechanic in a coalmine by catching trout in the nearby lake.
They make ends meet, but to the couple it’s a constant slog. “We do live in a great place,” Phillip says, “but I feel like a slave sometimes.”
When things get really rough at the end of the month – the money has run out, there are no food stamps left and the petrol tank is dry – people can always turn to the local food bank Five Loaves and Two Fishes run by Linda McKinney and her son Joel. On the third Saturday of the month they supply canned food and daily necessities such as toilet paper to up to 150 people who often sleep in their cars in the parking lot overnight to ensure they receive help.
For the last two years of its existence, the Walmart supercenter provided the food bank with close to 200,000lb of meat, dairy, pies and bread, allowing the McKinneys to increase the frequency of their giving. Now that’s gone, they try to make up for the shortfall by growing tomatoes, arugula and peppers in a greenhouse.
Linda McKinney says that the fresh food they received from Walmart, or “waste” as the corporation classed it, is sorely missed. But, like many of the other residents of McDowell County, she says she also mourns the communal aspect of the supercenter, its quality as a “social hub”.
McKinney rattles off a list of all the community facilities that disappeared from the region in recent years as the population declined and the culture of mega-chains like Walmart took root.
There used to be 28 churches of her United Methodist denomination in the county, now there are six; there were seven bars in Welch, all but one have closed; there were three cinemas, now it’s down to one; there are no community centers left; many of the corner shops have gone. “There’s nothing here,” McKinney says.
McKinney has one other, rather astonishing, reason to regret that the store closed. Walking.
“I went to Walmart for the walk,” she says. “I went early and I got a cart and I walked all over the store. I loved walking around it. I would walk and talk, talk and walk. I could walk the store all day.”
That’s a statement that will reverberate far beyond the boundaries of McDowell County, or West Virginia. It could be applied to small towns and rural areas right across the US. This is the statement of communities that have had the communal bled out of them.
Filling the void, as well as helping to create it, came a sparkling new phenomenon: a big box, 103,000 square feet of windowless air, where you could catch up with friends, trade guns, shop to your heart’s content and even take a hike, all within a concrete gash carved out of one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful ancient forests.
And now that too is gone.