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Pros and cons for Ketchikan with Wal-Mart

Jobs and consumer choice versus tough competition for locals

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2005

Nearly four years after Wal-Mart opened its doors in Ketchikan, Julie Rowe said she isn't ashamed to tell people she shops there "for some things," something she couldn't do when she moved there.

Amanda Welsh said she came to the island community near Alaska's southern boundary because there were no stores like Wal-Mart, but on at least one occasion she has had no choice but to shop there.

It isn't that she's anti-growth or anti-progress, Welsh said, noting that she is an architect. She prefers the individual character of the historic fishing and logging town.

"It (the store) was pretty controversial when it came here," Welsh said.

People still talk about Wal-Mart in Ketchikan while others in Juneau, 235 miles up the Inside Passage, wonder what impact a Wal-Mart could have. The company is studying Juneau as a store site.

Wal-Mart, an Arkansas-based discount retailer, has more than 5,000 stores and wholesale clubs in 10 countries.

Wal-Mart is continuing to look at the empty building that housed Juneau's Kmart before the Michigan-based discount retailer closed its Alaska stores in 2003, Eric Berger, the company's Northwest Region community affairs manager, said last week from Seattle.

Wal-Mart held its Ketchikan grand opening on March 21, 2001, Berger said.

"The store is doing well, and it's very active in the community," he said. It employs about 150 "associates." Companywide, about three-quarters of Wal-Mart store employees work full-time, defined by the company as at least 34 hours a week.

The Ketchikan store donated $10,000 to local schools to support travel for athletic teams, he added.

Berger said he knows there are people who don't want to believe Wal-Mart will be a good neighbor.

"Simply because of our size, people who are motivated by their own agendas or special interests spread a lot of misinformation about our company and its effect on communities," he said.

The company has set up a Web site to answer those concerns at www.walmartfacts.com, Berger said. The site answers widely circulated criticisms, such as the contention that Wal-Mart puts other stores out of business.

Bob Newell, finance director for the city of Ketchikan, said some local stores have gone out of business since Wal-Mart opened nearly four years ago.

"I can't say every business here closed," he said.

Some successfully changed their marketing and were able to do well and others have not been able to compete, he said.

Gale Beatrize, who owns The Silver Thimble, selling fabrics and sewing notions, said she thought Wal-Mart's opening would have a bigger impact on her business.

She still has loyal customers, but business has changed, she said.

"People who shop here are quilters," Beatrize said.

She found that people like the quality of her fabrics, although sales are down for notions - such as needles and thread.

Her store being next to the dock, Beatrize said she does a good summer trade with the tourists.

The biggest effect on Ketchikan-area business hasn't come from the Wal-Mart, Ketchikan Gateway Borough Finance Director Mike Houts said. The closing of a pulp mill in 1999 cost the borough and outlying areas 4,500 jobs.

"The population has gone down, and I don't think we've hit bottom," he said.

The borough's population is about 13,000.

At the same time, he added, "Wal-Mart gets lots and lots of business."

It doesn't just get Ketchikan's business. People come in from Wrangell, Petersburg, Metlakatla and Prince of Wales Island to shop there.

"They do provide jobs," said Ketchikan Gateway Borough Manager Roy Eckert, who came to Southeast Alaska after the Ketchikan Wal-Mart was opened.

Eckert knows there are communities that try to keep Wal-Mart from coming in, but he has always found the company cooperative in working with local governments. And he finds store employees are friendly and courteous.

Mom-and-pop stores can't compete on prices if they're selling the same things, he said.

"When the economy is down," he added, "you try to make your dollar stretch."

Beatrize said her fabric is more expensive, but Wal-Mart doesn't offer the quality she does.

Rowe, a resident, said that when people tell her she should shop locally, she tells them what she buys at Wal-Mart are things she would buy at the local grocery store. And the grocery store is now a Safeway, a national chain.

Rowe said she does some shopping with locally based stores. For craft materials, she will try the local shops first. And when she was remodeling her home, she was surprised to find some of the things she needed were less expensive at the local hardware store.

She questioned why Juneau would need a Wal-Mart, considering it already offers shopping choices at Fred Meyer and Costco.

A nine-year resident of Ketchikan, Rowe said it isn't as if people in the community had a lot of choices of where to shop before Wal-Mart came to town. Shoppers may have more choices in some respects.

Rowe said she knows she can buy a trendy pair of shoes for $12, and she knows what she'll be getting.

"I know I'll get $12 use out of them," she said.

Beatrize laughed when she said she shops at Wal-Mart sometimes. "We all do."

Houts said he doesn't believe Wal-Mart's effect is as dramatic as some make it out to be. He said he's lived in Ketchikan for 50 years, and he buys all his family's clothes on the Internet.

"Everyone shops on the Internet," he said.



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