Another small Virginia town copes with Wal-Mart

ASHLAND, Va. – Kilmarnock is not the only small Virginia community to face the prospect of its quaint and peaceful ways being jolted by the arrival of retail giant Wal-Mart. In 2001, Ashland, a community of about 7,500 people some 85 miles west of Kilmarnock, found itself in the same situation.

The Wal-Mart store in Ashland, Va., is anything but busy on a holiday weekend.

“We had kind of a unique problem, since Wal-Mart already owned the land and the zoning was in place for the store,” said Bill Ewald, owner of the Bell, Book and Candle Book store on Railroad Avenue.

“They were coming and there was nothing we could do about it.”

But Wal-Mart had purchased an adjacent parcel and applied to rezone it for a strip shopping center. That’s when the fireworks began.

“Oh, there were town meeting and lots of protests. We even hired a consultant from California to tell us how to fight it,” Bill recalls.

“In the end, it didn’t do much good.”

Across the street, Cathy Waldrop owns Cross Brothers’ Grocery, the kind of small “mom and pop” market rarely seen outside a very small town or a New York City neighborhood. She remembers going to all the meetings.

“The town council was all in favor of it, and they told us there was nothing we could do. Maybe they were right, but none of them are still on the council – they all were defeated in the next election,” she said.

The Ashland business community was joined by a citizens group called “the Pink Flamingos,” and their anti-Wal-Mart campaign made national news. PBS came down and filmed a documentary. In the end, the folks from Arkansas carried the day.

Three years ago Wal-Mart opened its Super Center on the edge of town, about a quarter mile off Route 54 and I-95. And what has been its impact?

“Actually, it hasn’t been that bad,” Bill said. “I’m not aware that its put anyone out of business. In fact, its hard to say much bad about it.”

A few doors down from Book, Bell and Candle is Cobblestone Bicycles, with a spacious showroom full of expensive mountain bikes. Mechanic Matt Harris says business is good in spite of Wal-Mart.

“We don’t really compete, since we provide bikes to the middle to higher market. Our cheapest mountain bike is $200,” Matt said.

“In fact, we get some of their bikes in here for repairs, so I guess you could say they’ve helped our business.”

Cathy definitely doesn’t see Wal-Mart as a benefit, but admits she and her husband have been able to hang on by providing things that Wal-Mart doesn’t.

“We still deliver groceries to our customers. Customers have personal charge accounts here. You won’t find that at Wal-Mart,” she said.

Bill agrees with that defensive strategy, noting that his emphasis on used books and hard to find volumes is very different from Wal-Mart, with its emphasis on best sellers.

Ashland does, indeed, have an air of prosperity. The quaint downtown takes advantage of the railroad motif (a track runs through the center of town) and the downtown location of Randolph Macon College. An upscale toy store and several restaurants are among the retailers along Railroad Avenue.

Cathy suggests it’s Wal-Mart that may have its work cut out to find true happiness in Ashland. On a recent Monday holiday, the Wal-Mart parking lot was only half full, and checking out required no waiting. Cathy says Wal-Mart is petitioning the town to extend a street so that it has more direct access to Route 54, and the flow of shoppers headed downtown.