Does Wal-Mart Matter?

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Wal-Mart is either a county’s savior or the source of its destruction, depending on one’s point of view. Or, a study finds, maybe Wal-Mart doesn’t mean much either way.

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Code Poet

Nine out of ten Americans live within 15 miles of a Wal-Mart, like this one in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

Our measure of a town’s viability is whether you can buy a pair of underwear on Main Street. By that calculation, the town where my wife and I bought a weekly newspaper — Smithville, Texas — was thriving when we moved there in the 1980s. There were four stores on Main Street where you could buy underwear — and added to those clothing shops were two banks, a pair of drug stores, a jewelry shop, a barbecue joint and a grocery where the owner (Babe Shirocky) sold meat from his ranch. 

That was before the town was surrounded by Wal-Marts. In the last part of that decade, the big blue store from Bentonville put up centers in three towns within 15 miles of Smithville, close enough to drain shoppers off Main Street. We thought. And today the grocery is gone, so are one of the drug stores, Charlie’s (the BBQ spot) and Babe’s homegrown beef. 

Other stores opened when the clothing shops closed, mostly “antique” spots that sprout like dandelions in abandoned Main Street storefronts in too many small towns. We always blamed Wal-Mart for the decline of Smithville’s downtown, for the fact that now you have to get outside of town to find a pair of underwear. Wal-Mart’s easy to blame. It’s big and it’s everywhere. Nearly 90 percent of the population lives within 15 miles of a Wal-Mart. Most people shop there at some time during the year.

“Wal-Mart is a death knell to some, a blessing to others,” write Terry Fitzgerald and Ronald Wirtz in an article for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “There is likely no other enterprise that engenders such strong and conflicting opinions and actions among individuals and the general public.” Every Democratic candidate for president in 2007 attended an anti-Wal-Mart rally. Indeed, a quarter of the people in the country think the company is “bad” for America.

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