ALEX POWERS

Oregon’s first Walmart turned 30 last week when Lebanon store No. 1775 recognized the anniversary the only way it could – in a Walmart cheer.

The store leaves its indelible, near-190,000-square-foot footprint in 30 years of Lebanon business culture, in which some mom-and-pop shopkeepers survived three recessions in competing alongside the behemoth, others shutting down for good, calling out the store’s arrival as bad for business.

As dozens of clapping and shouting workers rose on Tuesday, March 8 from folding seats somewhere between kitchen goods and folding basketball hoops, three among them were looking back on three decades of work in blue vests.

There from the beginning

Shelly Mabe was 19 and a student at Linn-Benton Community College when she onboarded before the store’s midnight public opening March 1, 1992, she said. The Sweet Home resident said it wasn’t her first job and it wasn’t supposed to be her last.

Some don’t believe they’ll stay at Walmart for long, joining the churn in and out of historically minimum wage or near-minimum-wage jobs on their way to other prospects. Mabe thought she was going to be one of them.

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She started as a frontline worker in the infant clothing and accessories department, then moved to overnight stocking, managing the electronics department for five years and eventually salaried management at the store for more than six years.

“The days just kept going,” Mabe said.

The store employs 280, a mix of full- and part-time workers.

Like others at the store, she excitedly told the story about how Lebanon became the first to make a sale, barely edging out its twin store in Klamath Falls at midnight as associates hurried the first shoppers through the register to record the historic transaction.

Mabe said benefits, like a 6% match on her retirement savings, kept her moving upward at the company before she wanted to spend more time with her family. She stepped back to a behind-the-scenes supervisor job, boxing up returned items and evaluating whether they’re broken or missing pieces before sending them to a warehouse.

Her name tag read 20 years and she was about to be awarded a new tag reading 30. Some, she said, have 50-year tags. Someday her name may be listed among theirs in the internal newsletters that underscore long career anniversaries.

“More than likely,” Mabe said. “Only got 20 more to go, right?”

A push into small towns

Thirty years ago, there were just two Oregon Walmart stores, with Lebanon’s and Klamath Falls’ among a nascent push by the company into a western market that included Idaho and Washington. Store No. 1775 was just that – the 1,775th Walmart store.

Walmart already was in 48 states and on its 30th year of spreading from Arkansas to the rural US with the intent of landing in small towns where its stores would face little competition from other big-box retailers.

George HW Bush presented the company’s founder, Sam Walton, that year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Walton died the next month in April 1992.

The company now has 4,626 Walmarts and 5,342 total stores when including Sam’s Club and other brands. The company employs 1.6 million in the US

Would-be job associates searching the company’s website for work will find job listings for Walmarts in cities named Lebanon in Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

Walmart made about $ 560 billion in 2021 with total adjusted profits of around $ 22.5 billion. Shareholders saw a per-share increase of $ 5.48.

In 2021 Bloomberg called the Walton family the richest in the world and reported its combined wealth at $ 238.2 billion, including a 48% stake in the company.

Rippling effects

At the same time, the US Government Accountability Office reported in 2020 that Walmart and McDonald’s employ the most workers who receive benefits for people at or below the poverty level, like Medicaid or food stamps, effectively subsidizing the companies with taxpayer money.

Tightly watched inventory, highly efficient distribution chains and opening stores in regions where workers are happy to apply for minimum-wage positions kept the company’s prices low, the stores in demand and they kept spreading.

The consequence is smaller local businesses with higher prices have to offer something Walmart doesn’t or go out of business – a local market driver often called the Walmart effect.

Then-owners of former Ricke’s Sporting Goods appeared on “The Phil Donahue Show” in 1996 to speak about small business survival. Ricke’s put in a gun range to differentiate itself from big retailers, Lebanon Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rebecca Grizzle said.

By 2004, Ricke’s was for sale.

The following year, co-owner Betsy Duncan told the Lebanon Express her hardware store was better because of Walmart, dropping general merchandise that couldn’t compete with the big box and focusing on its core hardware goods.

“We definitely consider ourselves Walmart survivors,” Duncan said.

Grizzle owes part of her political career to the store. The chamber director worked for a couple of years as a personnel manager at the store, then crossed paths with its legacy in 2003 as Walmart prepared to build a larger Supercenter-branded store, adding groceries and vacating its former site.

Lebanon Walmart, Take 2

The development spurred local government drama with city councilors appearing to block public conversation about the store and representatives from local grocery stores speaking out about the pressure the incoming Supercenter would put on other retailers.

A group called Friends of Linn County appealed the land use permits granted to Walmart in 2003, first to Land Use Board of Appeals, then to Oregon’s appellate court. The state denied the appeals, greenlighting Walmart’s expanded store.

The building that served as the former Walmart reopened as the River Center in 2006.

A former city councilor, Grizzle said she ran because she didn’t agree with the way her representative, a member of the minority against Walmart’s plans, had used the public process to block the expansion.

Nearly 20 years later, Grizzle said, the retail giant doesn’t compete with businesses that have specialized around the pressure of the big retailer.

“The pressure of a Walmart really causes a business to rethink their strategy,” she said.

Stores downtown had to up the quality of their offerings, she said, or offer something Walmart didn’t. She said furniture stores and others that moved out were likely to sooner or later.

“Long before Walmart arrived, their merchandise was dusty,” she said.

Grizzle used clothing as an example: “Yes, they have women’s clothing, but maybe I want higher-end clothes,” she said.

Grizzle stepped down from her council seat representing Ward 2 in 2021 after she moved from the district.

While the city absolutely had its share of business turnover when Walmart arrived, it’s impossible to precisely assess its impact over 30 years, Lebanon Downtown Association Program Manager Cassie Cruze said.

She acknowledged downtown storefronts generally turned into a revolving core of antique businesses as buildings fell into disrepair through the 2000s.

As investment came back in small Oregon downtowns through grants, strategic plans and, Cruz said, a desire for something other than Walmart, the businesses that opened and endured showed more diversity.

Downtown became less about going to see the neighborhood furniture store and more about walking from restaurant to restaurant and public displays of art. Cruze said newly opened businesses, like growler cafes and brewpubs and long-time staples like jewelry stores, show what downtown can do that Walmart can’t.

“That signals success to the public,” she said.

Alex Powers covers business, environment and healthcare for Mid-Valley Media. Contact him at 541-812-6116 or alex.powers@lee.net.

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