Walmart officials made the announcement on Monday, leaving Wise County and Big Stone Gap officials to get more details from the retail giant and from the owner of Powell Valley Square, where Walmart has been the main anchor tenant since 1984.
Phillip Keene, corporate communications director at Walmart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters, said, “After a careful and thoughtful review process, we have made the difficult decision not to renew the lease for our Walmart store in Big Stone Gap.”
Keene said “we look forward to serving” customers in the Big Stone Gap area at Walmart’s two stores in Norton and in Jonesville in Lee County. Each store is about a 20-minute drive from the town.
Keene said that the closure decision came after Walmart was not able to agree with the landlord on terms that would “keep the store profitable and open to the public.”
Big Stone Gap officials got notice of the closing on Monday morning, Keene said.
Approximately 80 employees are affected by the closing, Keene said, and corporate human resources will work to “identify transfer opportunities” at other stores or work with the Virginia Employment Commission on job placement.
While the Big Stone Gap store was the first Walmart built in Virginia, it was not expanded in its almost four-decade existence to include the full grocery sections, pharmacies and auto service centers included in the Norton and Jonesville stores.
Inside the Big Stone Gap store on Monday, there were no visible signs that the store will close in just over a month. Shelves and racks were fully stocked with food, clothing, electronics, toys, health and beauty supplies, hardware, crafts, electronics and sporting goods. No signs about the closing were posted, and customer traffic seemed typical for a summer weekday afternoon.
David Ferraro of One Center Corp., the company owning Powell Valley Square and holding Walmart’s lease there, said company officials had been in discussions with Walmart about renewing the lease. He said that One Center would issue a statement on the matter by Tuesday.
“We were caught by surprise,” Big Stone Gap Town Manager Steve Lawson said on Monday. “(Mayor Gary Johnson) got a call this morning, and we’ve been trying to contact Walmart officials all day.”
Lawson said he had reviewed business tax records for the Walmart store going back to its 1984 opening and found “very little variance” in tax receipts up to 2015.
“Since 2015, receipts have actually risen some,” Lawson said. “Eighty-one employees for a town like us, that’s big. It’s not a Westmoreland, but it’s pretty big. Four new businesses located up there in the past two years because Walmart was an anchor.”
Lawson referred to the departure of Westmoreland Coal Co., a major county employer that moved its operations out of Big Stone Gap and Wise County in the 1990s and to the north central region of the United States.
Wise County Administrator Mike Hatfield echoed Lawson’s reaction.
“We are trying to investigate the reasons and see if anything can be done to reverse that decision,” Hatfield said, adding that he understood that employees not transferred to other Walmart stores would be terminated on Aug. 16.
“We expect those separations will be permanent,” Hatfield said.
Walmart has been closing some stores across the U.S. since May, with closure of two of its Neighborhood Market stores near Richmond and in Virginia Beach, according to Business Insider.
While the Big Stone Gap store has seen little change except for a small grocery section in recent decades, the Norton Walmart Supercenter recently began its Grocery Pickup service where customers can buy items online and pick them up at a station at the front of the store.
“It’s hard when you get slapped in the face on a Monday with something like this, but we’ll try and come back,” Lawson said.