Walmart’s opening of store No. 4137, the first in Tacoma city limits, was met with mixed reactions last week.
The supercenter’s July 17 opening came a week after Haggen Food & Pharmacy announced it would be closing its Tacoma TOP Food & Drug store, located within walking distance of the national retailer that sits on the site of the former Elks Lodge off Union Avenue and South 23rd Street.
“Walmart will take a great deal of its business from established local businesses and is not a positive for any local retailer,” Clement Stevens, senior vice president of merchandising at Haggen, wrote in an email the week before making the formal announcement. “While competition is typically healthy, the Tacoma region is already over-served and the Walmart opening will have a significant impact on sales for TOP Food and Drug, as well as many other local businesses.”
Central neighborhood council chair Justin Leighton, who fought to keep Walmart out of the area, expressed a similar sentiment.
“Walmart is a one-stop shop, so somebody can drive to their parking lot and go in, get a tire and some plants for their yard, and some groceries, and get a CD on the way out,” said Leighton. “They tend to close other business down. Walmart tends to be a net loss for the community.”
Leighton’s concerns were realized when Haggen made its announcement July 10.
Stevens cited Walmart’s opening as part of the reason the company decided to close its Tacoma store.
“While a difficult decision,” Stevens said, “closing underperforming stores allows our team and our supplier partners to focus on building a stronger and more viable store base.”
Haggen opened TOP Foods of Tacoma in 1991 and expects to close by the end of the summer. The company is working to place its 64 Tacoma-based employees at other Haggen stores in the region.
News of TOP Foods closing surprised Walmart manager Adam Fann, who said it was unexpected.
“The big thing that these businesses fear is we’re just going to crush them when they’re in the area we’re going,” Fann said. “Not that I really know why they’re going out of business, but to close preemptively is kind of like throwing in the towel.”
Fann said that, in many areas, a Walmart opening has spurred business for nearby retailers, so he’s unsure why TOP Foods would make the announcement before Walmart had opened its doors.
“I’m sure it will take some customers, but it will add customers because of the traffic,” Fann said. “Usually it’s like an attraction. A lot of people that wouldn’t get off Highway 16 will.”
But that additional traffic is another thing on Leighton’s mind.
“Traffic is going to increase,” Leighton said. “There’s significant changes to Cedar. There’s a five-way intersection. Frankly, it’s just a mess.”
A five-way intersection was built at 23rd Street and Union Avenue, an entrance and traffic light were added on Cedar Street, and a left-turn lane from northbound Union to South 19th Street was created to help improve traffic flow around the new Walmart.
Fann said he thinks these changes will mitigate the increase in traffic.
“They’re going to bring more traffic in the area, and I know that’s a concern, but looking into all the plans for the roads around here there’s going to be little impact,” Fann said. “The increase on traffic shouldn’t be a burden.”
Leighton’s concerns, though, also include Walmart’s reputation as an employer.
“I just think that those employees could be better paid and get time off. I think it degrades the employee sector in our community,” Leighton said.
Beyond his criticisms, though, Leighton did acknowledge Walmart’s efforts to better the community.
Walmart gave more than $15 million in cash and in-kind donations in Washington in the last year, including 8 million lbs. of food to relieve hunger. The company also has partnerships with local organizations, including Tacoma Goodwill and its Operation: GoodJobs program, which helps veterans transition from military to civilian life with skills training and job placement services.
Fann said he hopes Walmart can be the best business partner in the community, but, for Leighton, it’s not enough.
“They claim they’re great community partners,” Leighton said. “They donate a lot of money, but at the end of the day their business practices aren’t reflecting the values of Tacomans. “
Leighton said he hopes the community helps Walmart’s new workers fight back against the corporation to get their rights.
“It’s the employees now that we need to look after,” he said.
Walmart has hired more than 300 workers since setting up a temporary hiring center office near the Tacoma Costco store in April.
Fann said a few associates have come from surrounding businesses, such as TOP Foods and Target.
Many of the employees got started before Walmart’s opening, helping stock shelves and prepare for the store’s grand opening events on Wednesday and Saturday.
“I’ve gotten around, met the neighbors, and everybody around here has seemed really happy we’re coming,” Fann said. “People are going to be excited and happy to see us here.”