Magazine article Drug Topics

Wal-Mart Not the Enemy after All, Small Town Finds

Magazine article Drug Topics

Wal-Mart Not the Enemy after All, Small Town Finds

Article excerpt

There was high anxiety along Viroqua's Main Street after the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unit opened on the outskirts of the small Wisconsin town back in 1986. Sales slumped, and businesses went belly-up as shoppers stampeded to the giant Discount City north of town. It seemed to some that Darth Vader's Death Star had landed just when Luke Skywalker was off vacationing in another part of the galaxy.

Then a funny thing happened. Some downtown merchants took a look at themselves and found that, just as Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." They realized that Main Street didn't have to become the hole in the economic donut.

Rise and fight: An early recruit in the revitalization effort was Mons Langhus; Wal-Mart's arrival had hurt his Langhus Health Mart Pharmacy. "Six months after they opened, my Rxs were down 25%," he said. "It cut into the heart and soul of my business.

"My first reaction," Langhus added, "was to engage the National Guard to fire five rounds of 105mm howitzer through the (Wal-Mart's) front door."

The comeback campaign actually began with one man, Fred Nelson, then the owner of Nelson Mill & Agri-Center. He found ways to fight back--find a niche, fill it, and cater to customers with the personal touch the mass-merchandiser couldn't match. Before long, other independent owners followed his lead but not before the downtown lost a J. C. Penney store, a dime store, a hardware store, and a sporting goods store.

Once the merchants got organized, they raised $180,000 so Viroqua could win a national Main Street revitalization grant sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Now, five years after Wal-Mart's arrival, Viroqua's downtown district is doing fine, said Theresa Washburn, manager of the Main Street revitalization project. The business community has privately anted up $300,000 to fund the project for the county seat of 3,700. Many merchants have spruced up their stores inside and out. New shops have opened, up to 50 stores participate in special promotions, and the city council has approved $300,000 to install vintage street lights downtown in September.

It's rare for small-town merchants to see "the big picture, that what you do for the community helps you," said Washburn, who runs workshops to help merchants hone their business skills. …

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