Big Stone Gap officials weigh options in wake of Walmart closure

Mike Still • Jun 12, 2019 at 3:15 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Council members and officials are considering their options after Walmart announced Monday it is closing its 35-year-old location in the town.

Meanwhile, some state and federal legislators are taking a wait-and-see stance regarding what happens next.

During Tuesday’s council meeting, Town Manager Steve Lawson recounted how he found out about the closing from Mayor Gary Johnson 15 minutes after the mayor himself got the news from a Walmart official.

“My personal opinion is that we’re out of their footprint,” Lawson said of some recently publicized Walmart business moves including more emphasis on online shopping.

Even as Big Stone Gap and Southwest Virginia have seen various economic challenges across the almost four decades Walmart has been open in town, Lawson said the store has either seen steady or increasing revenues in that time.

Lawson also read from a letter the town received Monday from Walmart Market Manager James Marshall. The letter stated that, after the store closes to the public July 12, all employees will be terminated on Aug. 16.

Walmart and Landmark Properties Group officials gave different versions of what caused the closing.

Walmart spokesman Phillip Keene said the company’s decision to leave Big Stone Gap followed “lengthy” negotiations during which neither side could agree on a rent price that would keep the store profitable.

Landmark officials, in a Tuesday statement, claimed that negotiations never reached a discussion on rent costs.

Lawson and Johnson each said their meeting with Marshall on Monday was conducted in an aisle for toilet paper and paper towels.

“I think it’s foolish that all of the workers are going to be relocated,” Lawson said. “It’s going to take a miracle to get (Walmart) to change their minds.”

Lawson said council members should start talking to contacts to look for a new tenant. He also said the town and community need to start supporting local businesses in the wake of Walmart’s closing.

Council member Crystal Lyke, referring to a recent cross-country trip she took, said the town should focus on its mountain location and its older features to attract new business and visitors. She said Walmart’s closing will impact small businesses in the Powell Valley Square, so town residents need to support those businesses as well.

Council member Tyler Hughes, who participated in Tuesday’s protest at the store, said the demonstration will continue Wednesday along with circulation of a petition against the closing. He added that he had been in contact with Gov. Ralph Northam’s office and that state Commerce and Trade Secretary Brian Ball had been informed.

Some state and federal legislators Tuesday took a wait-and-see position.

Northam Press Secretary Alena Yarmosky said, “Our administration has spoken with local officials and will assess opportunities to assist on the state level as possible.”

Kevin Baird, communications director for Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith, said that one constituent had called his office with concerns about the closing. Walmart had also contacted Griffith to say that it was closing the Big Stone Gap location, Baird added.

“We’re going to continue to monitor it,” Baird said. “It’s more of a local matter.”

“I will be pushing for answers on this closure to see what it will mean for residents, who could be forced to travel greater distances to shop for groceries, not to mention the devastating effect the closure could have on 80 Virginians who work at this location,” Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner said. “With more than 9,000 residents in Wise County living in a food desert, we should be expanding access to food in the region, not limiting it.”

“We love our community, we love our town and we will survive,” Johnson said.