Wal-Mart is pushing its smallest "Express" stores into a series of tiny Texas towns that are hungry for anything they can tax. Clyde, Anson, Albany, Haskell and Winters all are on the Wal-Mart Express.
But in one drought-ravaged little town, the promise of an Express store is more about economic displacement than salvation.
Merkel, Texas, has a population just over 2,600 people. It's what some folks in Texas might describe as a wide spot in the road. But it was big enough to attract Wal-Mart.
Big enough for a small Wal-Mart, that is. The giant retailer wants to open up an Express store -- large enough to put what few businesses there are in Merkel out of business.
Like the Merkel Drug Company.
Wal-Mart has been looking to put this small pharmacy out of business for years, according to its owners, Danny and Jan Woodall. In 1984, the Woodalls bought the city's only drug store in Merkel, which has been open for business since 1897.
According to Woodall, Wal-Mart representatives approached him as far back as 2004. He remembers the encounter because it was around the time that the Medicare D drug plan was being discussed in Congress.
Danny Woodall says Wal-Mart's emissaries came to his store to deliver a blunt message. "We're going to put you out of business," they told him. "We're going to be the last one standing. We promise you. We're gonna put everyone out of business."
The giant retailer wanted Woodall to come work for them in Sweetwater, Texas, which is about 24 miles west of Merkel. That would have left the 2,600 people in Merkel without a drug store.
"They offered me a job and said they would pay me dollar for dollar for my inventory," Woodall remembers. He bluntly told his guests: "Get your ass out that door or I'm gonna throw your ass out of it."
A short time later, Walgreens came to Merkel and asked Woodall to sell out to them, and go to work in nearby Abilene. Walgreen's said they would add a percentage increase to his salary based on the number of customers Woodall brought with him. He told Walgreen's he was not leaving Merkel.
Woodall likes to describe his small drugstore as "a pharmacy that operates like the pharmacies of the old times -- by giving you personal attention and excellent customer service. Unlike the chains, we will take the time to get to know you and understand your needs so we can serve you better. As our customer, you are our number one priority." Woodall says he can't imagine his elderly customers "getting on the Interstate and driving to Wal-Mart."
On April 21, Wal-Mart came back to Merkel. City Hall was buzzing with at least 100 people who showed up for what the local newspaper called "a heated debate" over the possibility of a Wal-Mart Express store coming to town.
Merkel's city manager was there to support the store. Some residents got up and told the City Council they were worried about the impact Wal-Mart would have on the eight local businesses that call Merkel home.
"Let's be real here," Jan Woodall testified. "This is a Wal-Mart Express. This is not a regular sized Wal-Mart. This is not a Wal-Mart Superstore. They're not bringing anything to Merkel that we don't already have available right here, right now."
According to Jan Woodall:
"The Express store is going to be 80 percent grocery, 20 percent general merchandise. In other words, it will be 80 percent non-taxable groceries and only 20 percent taxable general merchandise. It will have eight aisles of groceries and only two aisles of general merchandise. The gas pumps are taxable but the pharmacy is not."
She warned public officials, "This is not going to help the town's tax revenue as much as its going to shift it."
The City Council tabled the hearing until April 25 on a technicality. The zone change that Wal-Mart needs from agricultural to commercial has to be requested by the landowner, not Wal-Mart. This minor detail gave opponents a few more days to get organized.
Danny Woodall told Sprawl-Busters that when he informed the mayor of Merkel that the Express store would put his pharmacy out of business, "the mayor looked like a brick had hit him in the face. It just hadn't occurred to him." Woodall said everyone in City Hall told him the same thing: "There's nothing you can do to stop it." In fact, the city manager told him, "Have you considered a number if Wal-Mart approached you to buy your store? What would you ask for it?"
Woodall is 59 years old. He knows this time around, Wal-Mart has no interest in buying him out. "They can just crush me and set me aside." He explains that Merkel has lots of people on Medicaid. It's a low-income zip code. "The Medicaid office in Abilene sends people here--tells them there's cheap housing in Merkel." The city is also surrounded by Wal-Marts. There's two in Abilene, plus a Sam's Club, one in Sweetwater, and three nearby Express stores.
Now Danny Woodall is fighting for the life of his store. He knows it's not true that Wal-Mart can't be stopped. but local residents will have to find a land use attorney quickly, and come up with at least $50,000 in legal fees. That's sofa change to Wal-Mart, but one of many barriers facing opponents.
The fact is, this rezoning is not automatic. According to Merkel's zoning ordinance, a rezoning must meet the city's Comprehensive Land Plan, which it does not. The City Council must see 'substantial proof" that the rezoning serves the "general welfare," and "that conditions and trends in development in the area have so altered" as to justify a zoning change. None of these requirements have been met.
It appears that city officials pay little heed to these details when a big corporation comes to town.
For Danny Woodall, who has sunk 30 years of his life into Merkel Drug, watching his friends and neighbors roll over for Wal-Mart has been a bitter pill for the pharmacist to swallow.