'Not a big disappointment': As Wal-Mart closes its doors in Clinton, some residents celebrate _lowres

Advocate file photo by Stephanie Warren -- Walmart Neighborhood Market, 9181 Plank Road, Clinton.

Clinton, La. — When a store announced it was shutting down less than a year after opening, members of one community celebrated.

The town was Clinton, and the store was a nearby branch of Wal-Mart.

“We have our little, small, locally owned stores here,” which can suffer when “giants” move in next door, said Mayor Lori Bell.

The store leaving is “not a big disappointment for most of the people,” and many are glad, she said.

Earlier this month, the global retail chain announced it would be closing 269 stores, including eight in Louisiana, three months after the CEO told investors the company was reviewing its assets to compete with rivals such as Amazon.com.

The Clinton Wal-Mart, on Plank Road just south of the municipal line, wasn’t one of the large supercenters with myriad departments and vast aisles of merchandise. It was a smaller Neighborhood Market layout, which sells groceries, basic home goods, gas and pharmaceuticals — items local shoppers already had access to, said Joe Howell, president of the East Feliciana Chamber of Commerce. In addition to heading the local Chamber of Commerce, Howell is owner of the Feliciana Trading Post pawn shop and a recent candidate for parish coroner.

Online Wal-Mart orders can be shipped to a Neighborhood Markets for pick-up, but Howell pointed out that Clinton already has local shops that sell furniture, hardware and other merchandise.

“We’re not really losing any services that we didn’t already have,” he said.

When the national retailer moved in down the road, pharmacist Wimberly Gayle was nervous about the impact the store might have on her own business, Curry Pharmacy.

“The people of Clinton proved to me that they’re loyal to me, and I’m loyal to them,” she said.

Asked if her business could have suffered if the Wal-Mart pharmacy remained open, Gayle responded by saying the two offer different experiences. Wal-Mart may try to beat her on prices, but a big chain “can’t have the care and compassion that a hometown pharmacy has.”

She did point out that if Wal-Mart had put her out of business before folding itself, East Feliciana Parish would be down to a single pharmacy, located in Jackson.

And while residents pointed out that Wal-Mart didn’t stock local products or do their banking in town, many of the employees who stocked the shelves and rang up purchases are from the area. Howell estimated the store had a few dozen employees, including part-timers.

When approached, several employees said they couldn’t speak to reporters and referred questions to a manager, who politely deferred all questions to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters.

Bell, the mayor, said employees are staying on in Clinton into February to shut the store down, and the company is looking to place them in other nearby stores, such as the ones in Central, Baker and Zachary. Those who can’t be relocated and have been with the company for at least a year will receive a severance package, she said.

In-house competition appears to have played a role in Wal-Mart’s recent decision to shutter 269 stores worldwide; 95 percent of those slated for closure in the United States are within 10 miles of another Wal-Mart, though that is not the case with the Clinton location. The Kentwood store, which is also closing, is about 15 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart in Amite, though unlike Clinton, those communities are both located on an interstate highway.

The company has pointed out that the closures — which included 23 Neighborhood Markets and all 102 Wal-Mart Express convenience stores — represent less than 1 percent of its global revenue. While eight Louisiana stores are closing, nine are planned to open in the upcoming year, according to a company spokeswoman.

For Clinton, the brief relationship with the company may leave little lasting impact. Between May and December, the parish Police Jury and School Board collected $150,000 in sales tax, out of a total 2015 collection of $7.2 million, said Superintendent Carlos Sam.

The company constructed a new building for the store, but the Assessor’s Office hasn’t even determined its value yet. Several local officials said they’re curious to see what becomes of the site but have not yet heard a plan.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.

Editor's note -- This story was updated on Jan. 25, 2016, to specify for the national audience that Clinton is in Louisiana.