The face of Juneau shopping seems on the brink of change, but at least one person doesn't expect Juneau's employment picture to change much.
Neal Gilbertson, Southeast economist for the Alaska Department of Labor, has seen what the employment picture looked like when the planned site of a future Wal-Mart was occupied by another national discount retail store. There are actually a few more people with retail-industry jobs in Juneau than there were before Kmart closed in April 2003.
"While there was a brief decline in (retail) employment, there has been an increase since," he said. Likewise, he expects Wal-Mart would change where people work more than it would increase the number of retail jobs.
Earlier this month, Wal-Mart announced it had purchased the Lemon Creek-area property that Kmart occupied for 10 years. Eric Berger, northwest region community affairs director in Seattle for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, said store renovations at the site could begin in 2006.
He has said plans call for a "super center" that includes a full-service grocery department. He also said it is expected to employ more than 250, offering jobs with a competitive wage and full range of benefits.
"There would be a slight position increase - not huge," Gilbertson said of the number of new retail jobs Wal-Mart would bring.
Juneau's work force fluctuates seasonally, he said. In Juneau, with a stable population of around 30,000, between 16,000 and 18,000 people are employed. Government, including state, local and federal jobs in the state capital, make up the biggest part of that.
There are between about 1,900 and 2,000 retail jobs, Gilbertson said, with the highest retail employment during the summer tourist season.
He said he was surprised when he looked at the figures and saw the 150 jobs lost with Kmart's closing were already made up for by the spring of 2005.
With a Wal-Mart opening, "there would probably be some displacement," he said. A store that employs 20 people may cut back to 18. Another that employs 12 may cut back to 10.
Ron Flint, who owns Nugget Alaskan Outfitter in the Nugget Mall, said business people are talking about possible changes that could come to Juneau with a Wal-Mart. "Certainly you've got to be concerned," he said.
But his business didn't see a drop in sales when Kmart opened in 1993, he added. "Fred Meyer's the (store) that's really going to get hit."
Fred Meyer, about 112 miles up Glacier Highway from the abandoned Kmart property between the Mendenhall Valley and downtown, already operates a big-box store with a full-service grocery section. And in November the company announced plans to expand by about 40 percent in 2006.
"We don't comment on the competition," said Mary Loftin, vice president of public relations at the chain's Portland, Ore., headquarters. She said, though, that many communities have both Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart stores.
Juneau Chamber of Commerce President David Summers said he didn't have any comment about Wal-Mart coming to town other than to say he believes in free enterprise. "It's just a store," he said.
While most local business people didn't want to comment on the prospect of Wal-Mart coming to town, Flint said he was happy to see letters to the Empire showing concern or the way Wal-Mart would treat its customers. On the plus side, more big stores could make Juneau more of a regional shopping hub.
As a potential competitor, Flint said he believes his store is attracting a different sort of customer than would shop at Wal-Mart. "I've got products they don't have."
Flint said he expects Wal-Mart would be better-run than Juneau's Kmart was. The Michigan-based chain closed all of its Alaska stores in 2003 as part of its debt reorganization through federal bankruptcy court.
Like Summers, Flint said it comes down to free enterprise, and Juneau has seen Fred Meyer come in and Kmart come and go. "Then again, we've never seen a retailer like Wal-Mart before," he added.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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