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Walmart Closes Express Store in Oriental
The Timeline: Two Weeks and... Gone
January 31, 2016

T
he last half of January 2016 has been a turbulent time for Oriental. In the middle of the month, Walmart announced it was shutting all 102 of its Walmart Express stores, including the one just outside Oriental. Then, as fast as an express train, a mere 14 days later, the stores closed.

What this meant on the ground in Oriental was that a town that had 2 grocers as recently as October, suddenly had none.

walmart closing
Two weeks notice. TheWalmart Express on the edge of Oriental was open 20 months until January 2016 when Walmart announced it would close all 102 of their “pilot” Express stores. It shut its doors on January 28.

The Walmart Express had opened just 20 months earlier in May 2014. The 4-decade old independent grocery, Town-n-Country, hung on for almost 18 of those months. But overwhelmed by the competition, T-n-C called it quits in late October 2015.

TownDock.net has been covering the Walmart Express shutdown story since news broke in national media on a Friday morning halfway through January. We’ve now compiled all of TownDock.net’s home page coverage on the saga, here.

We start with mid-morning on January 15.

Friday January 15

10:23a In national news this morning, Walmart is closing all of its WalMart Express grocery stores, ending its experiment in to small box retail. One of those 102 experiments was right outside of Oriental where a WalMart Express opened in May 2014.

Town Hall says a representative of WalMart did try to contact the mayor yesterday.

An “Associated Press report says the stores will start closing at the end of the month.”:httpS://www.wral.com/wal-mart-to-shutter-269-stores-154-of-them-in-the-us/15236114/#XPYlhQcmm88RJ AP quotes WalMart CEO Don McMillon saying, in a statement, “Closing stores is never an easy decision. But it is necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future.”

“Actively managing our portfolio of assets is essential to maintaining a healthy business,” says McMillon

WalMart’s 20-month experiment in Oriental had an impact, just as its closing will.

walmart closing
Walmart Express had been open since May 2014.

Just before it opened in 2014, WalMart outbid a potential buyer for the town’s one pharmacy after pharmacist Ed Denton died. With the WMExpress closing, Oriental will be without a pharmacy.

When WalMart Express opened as a food store, another grocery, Town-n-Country, had been in business for more than 4 decades. But WalMart’s competition was too great and the independently-owned grocery shut down last fall.

When the WME closes Dollar General and its food shelves may see more shoppers. The Provision Company has recently started selling fresh local produce, dairy and organic meats.

11a The Oriental WalMart Express is closing down on January 31. That’s the word coming from an employee meeting today. +(updated: official list says 1/28.)

11:55a In Oriental this morning the headline and topic of conversation is that the Oriental WalMart Express is closing January 31. That news came today as WalMart announced it was ending its small store experiment – or as a WalMart release put it, Walmart Continues Sharpened Focus on Portfolio Management.

1:58p Walmart in Oriental was a contentious issue from the start, back in August 2013 when the plans first emerged. Some welcomed it, some worried and fought it.

The news today that Oriental’s WalMart Express would close on January 28 prompted one resident to note: “Oriental, the Town That Couldn’t Keep WalMart Away,” is now “The Town That Couldn’t Keep A WalMart.” (It should be noted that it’s not just Oriental but all 102 of the experimental Express stores that are closing. Still, the line was worth sharing.)

walmart town country graffiti
Just days after thr Town-n-Country closed with plywood over its windows, graffiti writers hit on Halloween night, their message blaming Walmart for T-n-C’s demise. The graffiti would remain until late January.

Meanwhile, in Letters To The Editor, Carol Small writes that she’s not surprised.

2:20p January 28th. That is the official closing date for the WalMart Express just outside of Oriental. Earlier report., from an employee meeting this morning, had the store closing on the 31st. But the official list from Arkansas HQ has store #7207 closing January 28.

2:31p While it’s called the Oriental Walmart, the building is just a few hundred yards outside of the town line. Two years ago, Walmart balked at being annexed in to town where it would be subject to Oriental’s zoning and GMO and property taxes. Walmart refused, even though the Town Board allowed it to tap on to Oriental’s water and enjoy the services of the Oriental police who are funded by Oriental property tax payers.

The Town Board said Walmart agreed to pay the Town a sum equivalent to what it would pay in property tax if it were in town. Last year was the first year Walmart would have had to pay Oriental those few thousand dollars. We checked with Town Manager Diane Miller. She says Oriental has gotten no payment. It was due by Dec 31.

Not only has there been no payment, there is no piece of paper binding WalMart to make that payment.

When TownDock.net asked the Town to provide a copy of the agreement when all this was being arranged back in 2013, Town officials at that time (prior to Manager Miller) said the retailer didn’t want it in writing. (If it were in writing, this story went, it could be a template for other towns with Walmart stores just outside their limits to get some compensation.) So Oriental’s officials acquiesced to this Walmart demand to keep the agreement unwritten. Again, the Town’s received nothing.

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Saturday, January 16

8:10a The town awakens wondering about the grocery future. This is an opportunity for a local grocery store to return. Will a grocery open to fill the one-stop full-service void? Would it be in the old T&C building or someplace smaller?

Will Walmart pay Oriental the $1,300 it owes the town? Walmart agreed to make an annual payment (instead of property taxes as it was outside the town limits) for the town services it enjoyed. Water. Police. Walmart was here in parts of 2014, 2015 and 2016. Logically, it’d owe that payment times three. But the Town only sought it for the first time last year. Bottom line, though is the Town’s received nada, bupkes.

There is some local chatter suggesting Dollar General is closing. There appears to be no substance to that at all. Dollar General is adamant they will remain.

Here is some good local food news. Sandie Beal is selling fresh produce at this morning’s Farmers’ Market on Hodges Street.

Meanwhile, the Provision Company on Hodges Street is expanding its grocery offerings.

The previously planned meeting re an Oriental Food Initiative Jan 27 takes on new significance.

9:48a More letters have been coming in on the WalMart Express living up to its name – coming and now, going like an express train. You can read the letters here and send one of your own to us at letters@towndock.net (All points of view welcomed, just no name calling…)

12:40p TownDock contacted Renee Smith, former manager of the Town-n-Country about the closing of the WalMart Express. The story is here..

Sunday January 17

12:50p The Walmart store closing has some letter writers looking ahead to what might rise from the ashes of Oriental soon having no grocery and two abandoned grocery buildings.

And, some readers write in to take the 2013 Town Board to task for not negotiating better on the Town’s behalf back then. Some writers even do both. Check ‘em all out, here in TownDock.net’s Letters To The Editor.

Wednesday January 20

Letters to the Editor on the WalMart closing keep coming in. Among the recently posted, hopes for a new store to set up shop and, a suggestion that Oriental’s experience may be of interest to a bigger, national news outlet. Also a former Town Commissioner defends the way the Town Board acted in the fall of 2013 as it accommodated Walmart’s arrival in Oriental..

If you are new to Oriental’s saga with Walmart, or even if it’s not so new to you, this account of an October 2013 Town Board meeting may be of interest. The issue at hand back then: Walmart’s request to tap on to the Town’s water system even as it refused to be annexed in to town. (It’s not really a spoiler to say, Walmart got its way.)

Also part of the mix at that October 2013 meeting were the dismissive and accusatory comments two Commissioners directed at those who opposed Walmart.

graffiti being painted over
Graffiti going away. In a photo taken Wednesday afternoon, Mike Vardy and Lance Burgos (with permission) paint over the graffiti at the closed Town n Country building. Another step in the recent ongoing saga of grocery store life in Oriental.

Thursday January 21

6a The grafitti is gone on the front of the Town-n-Country. Two residents yesterday spent over an hour painting the entire front black.

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Friday January 22

10:57a In today’s Raleigh News & Observer Oriental resident “Bob Miller describes the effect of Walmart’s experiment on Oriental.”:httpS://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article55900800.html

12:49p Oriental’s first black-owned grocery store stood on upper Broad Street next to what is now the Walmart Express. William Gibbs was the owner.

Yesterday, Mr. Gibbs passed away at his home on White Farm Road. He was 86 and lived his life in Oriental. A butcher by training, he worked at what was the Delamar store at the base of the bridge and also at a grocery shop in what is now the Provision Company. That was before opening his own store.

Grace Evans remembers William Gibbs as “someone really special.” Among other things, “Snooks” Gibbs, as he was called, served on the first board of Pamlico Community College and the NC Coastal Resources Commission and was the first African-American appointee at CAMA.

Service and visitation hours are not yet available.

3:50p A lot of letters came in in the past week since Walmart announced it was closing all 102 of its experimental Walmart Express stores. We are less than a week away from the shut-down of store #7207 just outside of Oriental which will leave our town with 2 empty grocery stores and no full-service supermarket.

So… what next? Some letter writers have considered the options. You can read them in this new Letters to the Editor file. And write one of your own. Email us at letters@towndock.net

Monday January 25

A number of TownDock readers have written in today noting that Oriental is mentioned in a Bloomberg news article. Its title – Wal-Mart: It Came, It Conquered, Now It’s Packing Up and Leaving. It’s about the impact Walmart had here in town both as a huge company competing in a small town, and now as a vacating retailer. It quotes Town Commissioner Barb Venturi.

It is good to have national media note how Walmart’s “experiment” effects real people in real towns. One sentence – “Residents of Oriental, where some city officials originally tried to block Wal-Mart from opening” had this writer wondering what the source was. What actually happened? The town sent out a press release in August 2013 welcoming Walmart.

Back in 2013 when Walmart first announced its plans, some residents welcomed the store. Other residents tried to stop it, warning of the very things that came to pass – the closing of the existing grocery, the eventual pull out leaving Oriental with no grocer or drugstore. The Walmart opponents circulated a petition and called on the Town Board to drive a harder bargain with Walmart. At a contentious meeting, Commissioner Venturi challenged the petition, saying 122 residents signing wasn’t enough.

Fast forward 2-1/2 years, and Bloomberg quotes Commissioner Venturi commenting on Walmart’s quick departure “I was devastated when I found out. We had a pharmacy and a perfectly satisfactory grocery store.”

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Tuesday January 26

In What’s Happening, tomorrow night at the Old Theater there’s a public meeting about having places to buy food in Oriental. A group of area residents called The Oriental Food Initiative set up the meeting a month ago — way before Walmart said it was closing its store on the edge of town.

That’s the 2nd grocery shut down in the short time since the OFI formed last fall – the indy Town-n-Country bowed to Walmart competition in October – and OFI’s focus has been on getting quality food – local produce, meat and dairy – for sale. It looked at several options but wanting food to eat now, OFI encouraged the Provision Company, a marine supply store, to add basic groceries – and local and organic at that — to sell.
Pat and the crew at the store are starting small but filling a need.

Tomorrow night, OFI will share what they’ve learned along the way which may help with the now-widespread concern about getting a full service grocery back to Oriental.

Wednesday January 27

12:01p Greetings, America. Oriental’s taking one for the team – providing you with something other than The Donald in tonight’s evening newscasts. If only we didn’t have to have gone thru what we did to land on your TV screens…

Honest, not just one, but two networksNBC and ABC – are in town today doing interviews about Oriental’s WalMart saga. They’re to be on this evening’s newscasts. The Walmart Express juuuust outside the town limits closes its doors tomorrow. That – and the WalMart induced closing of Town-n-Country last October – leaves town with no full service grocery.

Tonight’s the public meeting organized by the Oriental Food Initiative. OFI started up in the fall, to come up with ways residents could buy quality produce, meats and dairy after Town-n-Country closed. Tonight’s meeting – scheduled well before the Walmart closing was announced – is a chance for OFI to share what it’s learned and how it applies to finding a full-service grocer for Oriental.

12:42p Back in 2013 Walmart agreed to pay annual fees to the Town Of Oriental – fees approximately equivalent to what property taxes would have been if they were in the town. Walmart got to hook up to town water and get town police coverage, without actually agreeing to be annexed into town.

They haven’t paid them. Yet. Tomorrow the Walmart on the edge of town officially closes. town hall signToday Town Hall reports they have received assurances from Walmart that money is coming. It took lawyers (on both sides) to get it done. From Town Hall:
Please see attached letter from WalMart, noting the breakdown below of the total to be forwarded. We appreciate the efforts of Ms. Brooke Meuller, Ms. Amanda Mann, and Ms. Jennifer Clark from WalMart, and our attorney, Scott Davis, in closing this agreement and releasing the funds promised to the Town in 2013.

Ms. Miller,
Please find attached a signed letter agreement wherein Walmart agrees to make the following donation to the Town, based on property tax years as indicated:

2014: $208.85
2015: $2,963.49
2016: $3,259.84
Total Donation: $6,432.18

The check will be sent to your attention via Federal Express and you should receive funds by early next week.

Thank you,

Jennifer Clark Associate General Counsel Legal- Real Estate & Construction
The check’s in the mail.

3:41p Video crews for both NBC and ABC’s nightly news shows are in town this afternoon getting shots of Oriental in all our gray winter day charm and conducting interviews with some players in the Walmart Express story.

Faces you may see on your TV – Renee Smith, manager of the now-closed Town-n-Country grocery, and Town Commissioner Barb Venturi. (In 2013 the Commissioner dismissed a petition signed by 120+ residents opposed to Walmart. That account is here.)

Followup on another story from earlier today. Walmart says it’s sending the town $6,432.18 – the equivalent of what Walmart would’ve paid in property taxes from 2014 thru 2016 if it had been annexed. The letter from WalMart’s home office in Bentonville, is here.

8:17p Every seat was filled tonight at Oriental’s Old Theater – plus more – some 170 people came for the Oriental Food Initiative meeting. Ideas were shared, a positive spirit was in the room. Story coming Thursday.

Tonight Oriental made the national news… on NBC evening news:

Thursday January 28

Two of the network news ‘casts last night. Today, Today. (Yes, we are that small a town that we talk about it when we hit the national news.) All this because what happened here in Oriental with Walmart served as an example of what’s happened in many of the other small towns where Walmart is closing down stores.

In Oriental Walmart came and now less than 2 years later, with an indy grocery in its wake. Walmart Store #7207 shuts down tonight, a darkness on the edge of town.

Ok, so, that’s all been said. What’s next, what can we do? That was the overriding spirit at the public info meeting at the Old Theater last night, organized by the Oriental Food Initiative. It was standing room only and there were many standout moments.

Prime among them was when Billy Flockhart, manager and local owner of the Piggly Wiggly in Grantsboro said he’d open a Pig in Oriental in the Walmart building and could sell whatever foods the public wanted. The prospect of that practically radiated thru the room. But, Flockhart said, Walmart says it wants to sell its Express stores in blocks of 30.

Jim Edwards suggested contacting Walmart was at least a first step to get them to peel off this one store. That would let Walmart live up to its words 2 weeks ago when it said it would help communities it was abandoning get a grocery.

Town Manager Diane Miller rose to speak toward evening’s end and in a spirited delivery said that despite the depiction of a town with no grocery that Oriental would get it solved. Evidence of that she said, was the turnout in the theater.

It was noted that the town does in fact have places to get food in the meanwhile – fresh local produce, dairy, meats at the Provision Company, shelf goods at Dollar General, wines at Nautical Wheelers, deli at the Silos. There’s also the Mini-Mart whose owner Frank Zeidan said he wanted to buy the Walmart building as well.

Also addressed were the grocery-shopping needs of those in Oriental and the area without transportation. Town Commissioner Allen Price has been arranging volunteers to give rides to the Grantsboro stores such as Food Lion and Piggly Wiggly and pharnacies. More signed up last night. If you’d like to volunteer, call Allen or Leigh Price at 249-1361.

Saturday January 30

So, here we are at the end of January already. These last two weeks just sped by, what with the Walmart Saga. The store did close Thursday night.

If there’s any one takeaway from these past two years, it’s this: for local businesses to be here and stay local – especially the little guys, the indy owned places – we have to support them and shop there. We have to Go Local.

Sunday January 31

Still more national coverage about Walmart’s curtailed short dance with Oriental. On your radio yesterday morning, you could hear Oriental Mayor Sally Belangia talking with NPR’s Scott Simon. If you missed it – perhaps you were busy seeking that smoked tofu* – you can hear and or read it, here.

This morning’s News and Observer meanwhile reports on the differing experiences of the several small towns in NC where Walmart Express stores opened (and now closed).

Posted Sunday January 31, 2016 by Melinda Penkava


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