In big cities, businesses open and close all the time – usually with little fanfare. But when a retailer leaves a small town, it’s big news. Small town economies are fragile, and even one business packing its bags could spell major problems for locals. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Edna, Texas.
Edna is a town of a little less than 6,000 people. It’s located in Jackson County, 100 miles southwest of Houston. The area is mostly rural – farmers grow crops like cotton, corn and rice. And before we get to what’s happening in Edna today, let me tell you about what used to happen in Edna.
Joe Hermes has lived in Edna for over 60 years, and he’s been the town’s mayor for the last 32.
“When I was a youngster, the stores in this town stayed open on Saturdays from 7 in the morning to 10 at night,” Hermes says. “And people from outside the city would come in at 6:30 in the morning to get a parking place on Main Street. And they’d stay in town until 10 at night. People would sit on the hoods of their cars and as people walked up and down have big conversations. I mean, it was a different world.”
The downtown shops used to be a rallying point for the community. Sara Smiga is a fifth-generation resident of Edna. She owns a flower shop on the main drag.
“Harper’s, and Carol Ann’s, and R.B.’s – they were all clothing stores. Zlotnick’s,” she says.
Those are all gone though. There are still some shops in the downtown area, but not nearly as many as there once were. The change came in 1982, when Walmart came to town.
“For us, that store was an earth-shaking change. I mean my goodness,” Hermes says.
“We had a lot of businesses in town, a lot of great business in town,” Smiga says. “And when Walmart came in, it kinda shut those businesses down.”
Walmart offered prices and convenience some of the local stores couldn’t compete with. And this one even had a pharmacy – a real asset for a place like Edna with an older population. For over 35 years, the people of Edna went to Walmart for more or less whatever they needed. But Friday is Walmart’s last day. A month ago, the company announced that it would close the store. When I went there yesterday, I bumped into Maryssa Dunagan, one of the store’s employees.
“It was painful. We’re all so close to one another, especially those who’ve worked here for over 35 years,” Dunagan says. “They worked here since the day it opened. And they’re all just…they’re like family to me and my husband. Him and I met here. Our daughter was born on the 35-year anniversary of this store. So it’s close to our family.”
Walmart did not respond to request for comment on this story, and has not said why the store is shutting down. Dunagan’s 80 or so colleagues were given the option to move to one of the neighboring Walmarts in Victoria or El Campo, both of which are about half an hour away. She took the offer to work at the Victoria store, her husband found a job outside the company. It’s going to be a big adjustment – not just for them but for customers, too. Martha Villela is an Edna native.
“You know it hurts everybody, it hurts everybody,” she says. “Not just Edna – all the surrounding little communities. Lolita, Francitas, everybody. So if we need something now we’ll have to drive to Victoria, we’ll have to drive to El Campo. That’s really an inconvenience.”
The city will likely have to cut its budget because of the lost sales tax. There’s no place to buy a variety of clothes. If residents need something late at night, they may not be able to get it.
Now right here is typically the point in the story where the reporter would say something about how losing this one retailer could kill this tiny town. But if you talk to most anyone in Edna, they’ll tell you they don’t see it that way.
“It is going to cause some challenges, but we’re not helpless. We’re going to do alright,” says Mayor Hermes.
Rather than Walmart’s departure being an existential threat, it could be an opportunity to recapture what Edna used to be: a place where locally owned stores thrive, and bring the city together.
“That’s what we’re all hoping. If we can get in the stores that will handle what they were handling, that would be great,” he says. “And something else – I believe this has taught the people here you need to shop at home.”
With Walmart leaving a big hole in the market, it’s possible that smaller stores could fill the void. But since you can get to other Walmarts in a half-hour or so, the question will be whether Edna’s consumers and businesses commit to investing in local resources. There’s already some evidence of that at the flower shop.
“We needed a new delivery person because our delivery person’s having a baby and she’s going to stay home,” Smiga says. “So we did reach out to a Walmart employee and she accepted it.”
The new employee will start fresh in a couple weeks. And so will the town of Edna