BIG STONE GAP — After 35 years in town, the Walmart store will close July 12.
But there are conflicting accounts as to why.
Early Monday morning, Walmart announced plans to close, citing failed rental contract negotiations with the property owner, Landmark Properties Group.
A Monday email from Walmart corporate communication director Phillip Keene states, “We hope the majority of our approximately 80 associates at the Big Stone Gap store will want to continue their career with Walmart by transferring to another location.”
Keene’s statement contradicts a statement from Walmart’s Southwest Virginia regional manager James Marshall, sent Monday to Big Stone Gap Mayor Gary Johnson and the chair of the Wise County Board of Supervisors.
In his statement, Marshall said: “There are approximately 81 employees who are being impacted at this location . . . All employees at this facility will be terminated effective August 16, 2019. We expect the employment separations to be permanent. There is no union representative, recall or bumping rights. However, all separated employees can apply for open positions at other Walmart or Sam’s Club locations.”
On a Monday afternoon phone call, a Landmark Properties Group representative who did not want to be named stated that the company had just been notified that morning of the decision not to renew the rental contract. “Walmart is a multi-billion dollar company. Of course we want to rent to them,” said the representative.
Landmark Properties Group released a statement Tuesday morning. “Like the residents of Big Stone Gap, the team at Landmark Properties Group are surprised and disappointed with Walmart’s decision. We have been, and still are, ready to negotiate to any reasonable terms. The Walmart team has indicated that their decision to close is final, despite our efforts to reopen negotiation.”
The statement asserts that Walmart wanted “a substantial reduction in the base rent figure” but never proposed a dollar amount. Instead, Walmart made the decision to close the store.
The statement goes on to say, “On behalf of all involved parties, we apologize to anyone who is inconvenienced by this situation . . . We are using all resources to find a new tenant which will serve the community of Big Stone Gap.”
In a text message Monday afternoon, Town Manager Steve Lawson wrote: “I just don’t understand why Walmart representatives would not have let us know sooner that they were having trouble negotiating a rental contract. We could have contacted the landlord to try to help. We could have involved our legislators.”
Lawson continued: “I feel bad for the 81 employees that are being affected and for the other businesses in the shopping center that will be affected by losing the anchor business. This is a huge blow to our area and everything that we are trying to accomplish in Big Stone Gap. I just wish they would have given us a chance to participate in their decision.”
Many locals view the store not as part of a corporate giant but as a local fixture serving the community for 35 years. According to residents, the location is in fact the oldest Walmart in the state.
Town residents have taken action by rallying at Powell Valley Square, the shopping plaza that houses Walmart. Protesters held signs Tuesday that echoed concerns for the community members who cannot travel to the closest Walmart locations in Norton or Jonesville and for the 81 jobs that will be lost when the store closes.
“To put things in perspective, 81 jobs lost in Big Stone Gap is the equivalent of 7,000 jobs lost in Virginia Beach,” said council Member Tyler Hughes.
Hughes and Mayor Gary Johnson were two of 20 or more people who came out to protest the closing.
Many other shopping center patrons honked horns and came by to talk to the protesters.
Ronald Rogers, a retired coal miner and United Mine Workers union member, linked the closing of Walmart to the closing of Westmoreland Coal Co. “Everything is going downhill around here since July 31, 1995, when the mine closed.”
A FedEx driver on his route came over to the protesters and expressed his concern about the store’s closing, saying that his job would be affected residually as well.
Other businesses in the plaza may suffer residual effects as well. A Cato Fashions employee stated that she was personally upset about the closing but also concerned for her job and other people’s jobs. “When Walmart goes, which one of us will be next?”
Town council had plenty to say about Walmart during Tuesday night’s council meeting.
Johnson stated that he and Lawson went to the store to speak to someone. “We were hoping to go in the back to sit down and talk, but they kept us in the aisle between the paper towels and toilet paper with customers walking between us.”
Lawson explained that Walmart didn’t seem to be losing any money. In fact, looking at town tax records, he could not see any significant gains or losses in more than a decade. “Walmart has stayed even flow. The store has been doing as well as they have since 2007.”
Lawson stated that his main concern regards the other businesses in the center. “The budget doesn’t have a lot of money that we make from Walmart. It’s the residual effect that it will have on business that have moved up there because Walmart is its anchor store.”
While council members want citizens to call Walmart’s corporate office and legislators to try to save the store, the town is already preparing to move forward. Lawson asked council members to use their contacts to look for other retailers that may be of benefit to the town.
Council Member Crystal Lyke sees this as an opportunity to promote local businesses.
“We have so much at our fingertips that we can utilize, but we just see the negative,” said Lyke. “We need to support local businesses. I buy everything I can in Wise County. I don’t go to Kingsport for hardly anything.”
Lyke pointed out that Iron Works Cycling, a locally owned bicycle shop, will have no competition in Big Stone Gap with Walmart leaving.
“I would get out there and promote my company as hard as I could,” said Lyke.
Council Member Aaron McKinney said that Walmart’s closing may give someone the opportunity to open up a small business.
“We have strength in numbers,” said Johnson. “We love our community, we love our town and we hate for things to go wrong, but we will survive.”
During a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, Johnson stated that he has been in contact with Brooke Mueller, a Walmart corporate employee. He said Mueller explained to him that Walmart did try to negotiate a rental agreement with Landmark Properties Group, but had a few demands. Mueller would not discuss the specifics except to say that having the parking lot repaired was one of them.
Johnson believes that if the community continues to call the corporate office and show up to protest the closing, there is a chance that the store could stay open.
“Numbers, that’s what we are looking for,” said Johnson. “We need people to call Walmart, call your local legislators. Call more than once.”
Johnson said that council members have gotten responses from the offices of U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and of Gov. Ralph Northam.
“We have heard back from everyone except (Congressman Morgan) Griffith so far,” said Johnson.
Johnson explained that if a deal cannot be reached, legislators intend to help the town find another business to replace Walmart.
Three more residents gathered at the location Wednesday morning. Johnson said Hughes is asking more people to come out Saturday. “We don’t want people to boycott Walmart. We want people to show up. That will help pressure them to stay open.”