It’s not much to look at now, a Walmart sign that’s been painted black. But it’s heartbreaking for Linda McKinney, a McDowell County native who sees poverty on a daily basis.
McKinney knows what it takes to exist in Kimball, a southern coalfield community that’s recently lost 13 mines and the good-paying jobs that come with them. And now, Walmart is gone too, taking another 140 jobs. She knows them through her work at a local food bank.
Workers used black paint to blot out the sign in the middle of the night. Slowly, one letter at a time, Walmart disappeared.
“They said they wouldn’t put something heavier like plastic over it because the wind would knock it down.”
The corporate retail giant’s arrival ten years ago brought massive changes to this community.
Sure, some small, mom-and-pop stores shuttered, but Walmart offered lower prices and services the community would come to depend upon.
For example, Wal-Mart’s pharmacy provided people without prescription drug coverage generic medicine for less than $10 a month. Even having motorized wheelchairs so that special-needs customers could shop comfortably in a handicap-accessible store was a new convenience.
With Wal-Mart’s sudden departure—the chain announced the move less than a month before the closure—the community again is bracing for massive change. It came as part of a corporate announcement that 269 under-performing locations were being closed nationally and internationally.
Walmart's closing 154 stores.
— Jess Ramirez (@journalistnotes) February 6, 2016
“How are people on oxygen going to get their groceries, much less even shop?” McKinney said.
McDowell County Chamber of Commerce Manager Betty Jones said the store’s closing sends an ominous message to residents who are now fearful about living in a community that can’t support a Walmart.
“When you add in all the mines that have been closing, this is really a blow. And we had more mom-and-pop shops before Walmart, but of course we don’t have a lot of them left now. It really rooted them out,” Jones said.
Across town, office assistant Pam Akers, who works for the City of Welch, knows plenty of local residents who blame the federal government’s “war on coal” for their hometown’s predicament.
“We’re just getting slammed every which way we go, and it is very disheartening,” she said.
They also don’t appreciate how Walmart’s decision has disproportionately impacted smaller communities, Akers said, recalling a news story about a North Carolina town that lost nearly all of its local businesses after the company arrived.
“Now the people in [that] community have to go out of town just to buy an onion. It’s just so sad.”
“When you consider that you lose 1.5 jobs for every one created by Walmart, it’s finally going to catch up to you, so this is a big deal on a lot of different levels for our community.”
McDowell County residents will have to travel about an hour each way, over dangerous mountain roads, to reach the closest Walmart in Bluefield, Virginia. They will likely have to make this trek on a regular basis to get items not available at the only two remaining local stores, Goodsons’ and Magic Mart, in Welch.
“I’m just heartbroken to think about the others—elderly and people who just don’t have a vehicle or the money—to make this kind of trip on a regular basis like they will need to do,” McKinney said. Not to mention winter weather sometimes makes the roads impassable.
The move was especially painful since it was a major donor to the Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank, said McKinney, who oversees the nonprofit’s operation.
“We were allowed to go to Walmart three days a week, and last year we processed 90,000 pounds of food from there, everything from meat and produce to any of their bakery goods. And a lot of times they would call because they had an overage on their milk, so we’d go and get their extra dairy, too. I’d say over the years it was probably worth millions because of how much food they gave us,” McKinney said.
It was a shock when news broke that the store was closing. Local employees including the manager, who was called in from vacation, evidently had no advance knowledge of the move.
“For two days, I just didn’t know what to think because all I could think about was how I was going to feed my people. But God will provide, even if we don’t have any more chicken or roast beef to hand out,” she said. In fact, donations have already arrived as out-of-state folks and organizations heard about the food bank’s void due to Walmart’s departure.
Even before Walmart’s closure, people lined up before dawn to wait for the food bank to open. McKinney isn’t sure what to expect for the Feb. 20 distribution.
Last year the organization served 11,000 people, half of the county’s entire population, including approximately 4,000 families.
Approximately one third of the 300,000 pounds of food that was distributed came from Walmart.
Although rural poverty can sometimes be “out of sight, out of mind,” that’s not how things are in McDowell communities.
“Driving through here you will see dilapidated houses with people living in them, a lot of structures that should have already been abandoned but families are still hanging on there. In the small towns, you usually see people just hanging on the streets or on the corner because there’s nothing else to do,” she said.
Imagine not even having running water relying instead on local springs.
“We’ve been here working all day and we’ve had a lot of people come by just looking for bottled water,” she said.
Sadly it’s not likely to get better soon. Norfolk Southern Railroad plans to close its yard in Bluefield due in large part to the state’s declining coal industry.
Other problems including rampant drug abuse and a continuing lack of even basic infrastructure, like good roads and public utilities to provide water and sewer service, make it even harder to recruit new employers to the area.
But there are some who refuse to give up.
McKinney’s family is not giving up on McDowell County. They believe education is the key to a brighter tomorrow. They are actively working to introduce local folks to the science of hydroponics which uses water to grow crop plants.
Additionally, a GoFundMe page has been established to help raise the $15,000 needed to purchase a special kind of greenhouse that will allow vegetables, fruits and even herbs to be grown throughout most of the year.
Five Loaves and Two Fishes
Thank you to everyone that made this video possible! A bigger thank you to JD Belcher for producing this video. Please share and help spread the word for our vision to Grow McDowell! www.gofundme.com/fiveloaves
Posted by Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank, Inc. on Sunday, January 31, 2016
“McDowell County has been good to me and my family, so there is no way I’m going to stop helping other people. I won’t let them go hungry, because feeding people is in my heart and my heart is here,” McKinney said.
No stranger to hard times, Akers too said she’ll gladly stay here because this is home.
“You know how some people say that the last person out should turn out the lights, well I’m going to be there making sure the light stays on here,” Akers said.
As for that black-out Walmart sign, McKinney wishes it wasn’t there but she’s also taking action into her own hands. “I have already called the city because I want to go and plant some flowers under the sign and beautify it the best I can.”