Demonstrators protest closing of Big Stone Gap Walmart

Mike Still • Jun 12, 2019 at 9:00 AM

BIG STONE GAP — A group of demonstrators protesting the planned July 12 closing of the town’s Walmart got plenty of honks and waves Tuesday, and more demonstrators are expected Wednesday.

Walmart and the landlord for Powell Valley Square are also giving contrasting versions of the lease negotiations leading to Monday’s closing announcement.

Big Stone Gap Town Council member Tyler Hughes and Lee County Democratic Party Chairwoman Roberta Thacker-Oliver were among a group of approximately 20 Wise and Lee county residents manning a line with signs protesting Walmart corporate officials’ decision to shut down the 35-year-old store, the first Walmart opened in Virginia.

The closing would affect 80 workers. While Walmart officials said Monday it would work to offer employees of the store positions at the Jonesville and Norton Walmart Supercenters, no guarantee of those positions was made.

The group first lined up at the storefront, and manager Tony McMillan was friendly when he came out to ask them to move out to the Powell Valley Square parking lot entrance.

“We appreciate our community,” McMillan said as the demonstrators moved. Soon after, drivers entering the lot waved and honked horns in support of the group’s signs.

Demonstrator Chelsea Barnes said she found out Monday about the demonstration.

“We’re just people who live and work in the community,” she said.

“I just decided to come and support our Walmart family,” said Big Stone Gap resident Judy Hall.

“Eighty jobs lost in Big Stone Gap. That’s the equivalent of 7,000 jobs lost in Virginia Beach and nobody in the state wouldn’t say that isn’t a big deal,” Hughes said, holding a sign saying “HONK FOR WALMART WORKERS!”

Both Hughes and Thacker-Oliver said they were trying to get information from Landmark Properties Group, Walmart’s landlord.

Landmark released a statement Tuesday on the situation.

“When renewal discussions began, Walmart insisted on ‘a substantial reduction in the base rent figure,’ ” according to Landmark. “After consideration and competitive market research, we discovered that Walmart was already paying low rent for retail space in the area. However, we waited for Walmart to propose a rent reduction for us to consider, but the figure was never provided by Walmart.

“We were surprised by the sudden decision, as we had not reached a point in negotiations to discuss dollar terms,” the Landmark statement continued. “The outcome was decided by Walmart without a complete negotiation.”

Landmark’s version of the negotiations contrasted with Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene’s version of events released Monday.

“Our decision not to renew this lease comes after lengthy negotiations with the landlord of the property,” Keene said. “Ultimately, we were unable to agree on terms that would have allowed us to extend the lease and keep the store profitable and open to the public.”

Inside the store, some signs of the impending closing have appeared. The firearms case in the sporting goods department was empty, and much of the jewelry case was empty of diamond rings.

A sign at a register told customers that the store was no longer reloading Walmart gift cards, and a sign on the customer service counter said that all sales were final with no refunds or exchanges.

Thacker-Oliver said she was concerned whether Walmart would be able to offer enough hours to Big Stone Gap employees transferring to the Norton and Jonesville stores, or even if those stores could absorb the additional workers.

Hughes said he had contacted Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, and representatives told him that they were notifying state Commerce and Trade Secretary Brian Ball.

Big Stone Gap Mayor Gary Johnson, visiting the demonstrators Tuesday, said he found out about Walmart’s decision during an 8:30 a.m. call from a corporate representative.

“They said, ‘We’re closing your Walmart July 12,’ ” Johnson said.

Johnson said he and some city officials went to the Big Stone Gap store Monday morning to talk with a Walmart official.

“He met us out in the toilet paper and paper towel aisle,” Johnson said.

After telling the official how local residents, especially elderly people, depend on the store for many shopping needs, Johnson said the official “just looked at me like it’s not happening.”

Johnson said he was concerned for other stores located in the Walmart-anchored Powell Valley Square. With two empty storefronts bearing “For Lease” signs, the rest of the shopping center is inhabited by a Verizon cell phone store, a Dollar Tree, a tattoo parlor, a Goodwill store, a Mexican restaurant, a Cato’s, a rent-to-own store and a check cashing outlet.

“It’ll filter down,” Johnson said. “People come up here to Walmart and then eat or shop at Cato’s.

“If (late Walmart founder Sam Walton) were here, I don’t believe this would happen,” Johnson added.

Hughes, during the town council’s meeting later Tuesday, announced that the demonstration would continue Wednesday and that a petition would be available for people who are opposed to the closing to sign.

“It’s strange, but Walmart is now like a local business,” Hughes said. “Walmart came in years ago and mom-and-pop stores closed. Now Walmart is leaving, and mom-and-pop stores are closed.”