HED:Life after Wal-Mart

AUTHOR: CUMMIN

HED:Life after Wal-Mart

By John Cummins

Daily Journal

BOONEVILLE Brad Walden says business in pretty good these days, even on the older side of town.

The third-generation grocery store manager at Waldens Super Star says customers enjoy shopping at his store, which recently underwent a thorough expansion that, besides giving the store a newer appearance, also gave Waldens the only deli/bakery in this town of 9,000.

What’s noteworthy is that Walden’s store at 910 E. Church Street is thriving despite the move several years ago of Booneville’s Wal-Mart – from practically across the street on the east side of town to North Second Street on the west side of town, closer to U.S. Highway 45 and the newer development sprouting up west of Northeast Mississippi Community College.

Waldens isn’t the only store thriving in the retail giant’s absence. Patrick Eaton, executive director of the Booneville Area Chamber of Commerce, said that no fewer than 16 new businesses have established locations in the town’s east side during the past year, creating more than 38 new jobs.

That business expansion goes hand-in-hand with community development here, Eaton said.

“We’ve always had a strong leadership base. Now, during the past five or so years, you’re seeing that people are investing back into Booneville and Prentiss County, especially in the east side of town,” Eaton said.

New business follows homes, traffic patterns

Wal-Mart, after 17 years on the east side, pulled out in 1991, moving from a 41,000-square-foot location to a 72,000-square-foot building on North Second Street.

That move originally sent retail customers “haywire,” Walden said.

“You could tell when Wal-Mart left, and it hurt some,” he said. “But customers came back after about six months.”

They came back partly because of Waldens Super Star’s 42-year-old reputation for quality and customer service, and partly because of the store’s policy of staying competitive with Wal-Mart pricing.

But Booneville’s small-town proximity also helps. Though Wal-Mart specifically targets smaller towns, in hopes of dominating trade, small size can be a double-edged sword

“Here, because we’re so small, you can drive across town to get what you need and it’s no big deal,” said Walden. “You can’t do that as easily, say, in Tupelo or larger towns.”

Much of Booneville’s residential population resides on the east side as well, said Eaton, while on the west side of town “there’s not that many homes left.”

In addition, developers are building new medium- and higher-priced homes on the east side.

Starling Creek subdivision, for example, targets first-time homebuyers with prices in the $70,000 to $90,000 range, while Johnson Home Builders is working on a 10-home subdivision on East Church Street. And several downtown tenants have spent millions of dollars to renovate their offices and stores in an area which straddles both sides of town.

Traffic counts remain high

Eaton said that drivers on their way home account for much of the east side’s traffic patterns, and thus older Booneville’s resurgent growth.

Only North College Street adjacent to Northeast Mississippi Community College has a higher average per-day traffic count than Church Street, at 9,200 vehicles per day compared to 7,600 vehicles per day.

In comparison, north Second Street in Booneville, the site of several new shopping centers, had an average traffic count of only 4,800 vehicles per day, according to 1997 state department of transportation data.

That count has either helped convince several businesses to locate on the town’s east side or contributed to their success, said Eaton. One fairly new business satisfied with its eastside location is New Albany-based Van Atkins, a regional department store chain with additional locations in Amory and Ripley.

Store manager and part-owner Barbara Taylor said that when the store initially located in the strip mall Wal-Mart had vacated, she had her doubts.

“It seemed like everyone was fighting to go to (north Second Street), and it made you wonder if you made the right choice,” Taylor said. Now, three years later, Taylor said she’s satisfied with her store’s location.

In any small town, Taylor said a store like Van Atkins has to prove itself to its customers, and that she knew that “from day one.”

Now, after giving its customers quality service and selection, “the store is doing good.” She’s also serving customers who are tired of fighting traffic congestion and other problems on north Second Street.

“There’s been several things that have moved out here,” including a flower shop and pharmacy, Taylor said, adding those additions point to the resurgence of the area and bring increased customer traffic to Van Atkins.

“We can see the growth out here. There’s been several businesses that have moved here since we’ve came,” including a florist and pharmacy, Taylor said.

That means increased customer traffic for Van Atkins as well, she said.

“Any new thing over here can only help us, and there’s been several improvements … if we have what the people want, then they’ll come here.”