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Returning to the small town that Walmart left behind

For nearly 20 years retailers in downtown Winnsboro, South Carolina, struggled to compete with Walmart’s cheap products and one-stop shopping. As we reported in 2016, Walmart closed its supercenter there three years ago, one of 154 stores it shuttered across the country that year. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker returned to see what life after Walmart is like for the small American town.

We would like to hear from viewers like you. What comments or questions do you have about this story? How has Walmart’s presence or absence affected your community?

Send us your thoughts at nhweekend@wnet.org. We may use your response in an upcoming show.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    According to Walmart, 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of one of its stores. But not the residents of Winnsboro, South Carolina. As NewsHour Weekend Christopher Booker reported in 2016, Walmart closed its super center there three years ago, one of 154 it shuttered across the country that year, many of them in rural areas. He recently returned to Winnsboro to see what life after Walmart is like for a small american town.

  • Christopher Booker:

    When the news came in January of 2016 that Walmart would close the Winnsboro, South Carolina, Supercenter, residents were shocked.

  • Nancy McClurkin:

    We thought it was a prankster at first. I said, "Walmart's closing?" That's the only store we have around here.

  • Jimmy Dorsey:

    I think that the customers deserve to know something You know? I spent a lot of money at Walmart.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The closure was part of a restructuring effort that Walmart described in a press release as "necessary to keep the company strong and positioned for the future."

    A Walmart spokesman told the NewsHour in 2016 that "..there was not a single factor, like profit or location, that determined which stores they closed and which remained open." And just two weeks after the announcement, Winnsboro's Walmart shut its doors. For nearly 20 years, the store had served as the town's one stop shop: the place where residents could buy groceries, fill their prescriptions or just catch-up with their neighbors.

  • Nancy McClurkin:

    Or if you wanted to see anybody, come to Walmart, which is where everybody would meet.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But convenience came at a cost for Winnsboro. Competing with Walmart's rock bottom prices was difficult for the town's existing businesses. When Walmart arrived in 1998, the town had three grocery stores and two department stores; by the time it left Winnsboro, only the Bi-Lo grocery remained. But it was downtown, about two miles away from Walmart, that took the biggest hit.

    Terry Vickers, Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, 2016: I came to Winnsboro– a year and a half before Walmart.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Terry Vickers was president of the Chamber of Commerce when Walmart opened in 1998.

  • Terry Vickers:

    There were some– some smaller shops. Sandwich shop, book store– small mom and pops– on the street. And while some of those– small shops were able to stay open– a few of them, you know, just had to close their doors.

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy, Winnsboro, SC:

    There may be some benefits of not having a Walmart here

  • Christopher Booker:

    In 2016, Dr. Roger Gaddy, a local physician, and also the town's mayor, saw Walmart's departure as an opportunity for the town.

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy:

    When Walmart comes, the small mom and pops close. So we're hoping that whenever Walmart leaves, some of the small mom and pop stores and specialty stores will– will reopen. And it has the potential to help revitalize Main Street.

  • Christopher Booker:

    If we come back — what do you think we'll see in Winnsboro?

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy:

    I would like to think that you would see a revitalization of downtown. You'll see more small specialty shops downtown. You'll see more people shopping downtown. I hope you'll see– another grocery store, so that is what I am hoping you will see.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Three years later, in 2019, we did come back to Winnsboro – and found that at least one of the mayor's projections has come to pass.

    A second grocery store did open after the Walmart closed – right next to a new sporting goods store and a new discount store.

    And fortunes have improved for some of the small businesses that had managed to weather the Walmart years.

    The local hardware store says business has increased by 20 percent since the Supercenter left.

    And the downtown pharmacy manager Carrie Baker says business has nearly doubled.

  • Carrie Baker:

    We just have more business. Our numbers have increased. We're now staying open on Wednesdays, which– when we used to close at 1:00, now we're here all day on Wednesdays.

  • Christopher Booker:

    And there are a few new faces.

  • Crystal Paulk:

    Believe it or not, what convinced us to open was the fact there was nothing here.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Crystal Paulk and her family moved from Connecticut to South Carolina a few years ago. Following the success of her family's food truck business in nearby Columbia, they decided to open a donut shop in Winnsboro in 2017.

    Crystal Paulk, The Donut Guy cafe: I mean, people would say, "Winnsboro? Are you serious? Why?" and I am like "Why not?" it was just Winnsboro is a place where there isn't anything here, you know? And– and I don't mean that in a negative, but it's a small place, so there's not a lot, you know. But what there is, it's– what is here is unique.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Paulk says business has been steady, steady enough that they are making plans to open a restaurant next door.

  • Crystal Paulk:

    We have relationship with people. You know, we see people who– who were once pregnant and now they have their– you know, they're coming in with the little girl or the little boy, you know. That's just super cool.

  • Christopher Booker:

    But those are the exceptions. Much of downtown Winnsboro remains like it was when Walmart closed its doors in 2016.

    Gene Stephens, Fairfield County Chamber of Commerce: The businesses down here, outside of a few, are still struggling.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Gene Stephens took over as president of the Chamber of Commerce when Terry Vickers retired last December. He says about a quarter of the downtown storefronts remain vacant.

  • Gene Stephens:

    Some people are hesitant to purchase these buildings, rent these buildings, and do that work, because the investment is so large upfront to get 'em back up–

  • Christopher Booker:

    Now it's been three years since Walmart closed. Do you think Walmart owes the town of Winnsboro anything?

  • Gene Stephens:

    Me, personally, I don't think so.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is there any validity to the argument that, well, the community supported Walmart?

  • Gene Stephens:

    I do believe if you ask the majority of the population, they would say that the Walmart did owe the corporation did owe something, because of the way they impacted the community. Something that will help us revitalize to get back to where we were before Walmart came.

  • Christopher Booker:

    When Walmart left Winnsboro, it did contribute $30,000 dollars to the county's community development corporation. But even those who were optimistic concede hopes to restore downtown may have been premature.

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy:

    We've got some people that wanna– you know, want downtown to be reignited, rejuvenated, and– you know, that's just not happening anywhere to amount to anything. There'll have to be some major changes in the population, and– for that to occur.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Mayor Gaddy now believes the fate of downtown is tied not to what happens to the storefronts, but what happens just outside of town.

    In December, after sitting empty for nearly a decade, the town's former Mack Truck production facility was sold to a Chinese mattress manufacturer. They are expected to open this year and hire 250 workers. Winnsboro sits between Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina.

    State and county officials are marketing the " I-77 International Megasite," just ten miles outside of Winnsboro on a 1,500 acre tract of land, as the location of the area's next major employer.

    The mayor is hoping it will lure an auto manufacturer that can bring 2,000 jobs or more. But if it comes, it won't come cheap.

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy:

    Where the town really is involved with it is that we supply electricity and natural gas and water. We've floated about a $12 million bond to make sure we have a sustainable water supply for our re– reservoir to help with industrial recruitment.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Twelve million dollars is a big sum for a small town to gamble on recruiting a big company. But it's a gamble Mayor Gaddy believes they have to take.

  • Mayor Roger Gaddy:

    To have downtown to be successful, you gotta have a critical mass of people. To have the critical mass of people, you have to have the industry. To have the industry, you gotta have the infrastructure. I'm kind of a basic thinker, and I said, let's– we'll work on the infrastructure, hopefully industry will come. When the people get here, then downtown will have a much better opportunity to flourish. And– you know, it– may or may not happen in my lifetime, but hopefully it won't be too long after that.

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