South Texans See The Post-Retail Future Reflected In A Tale Of Two Walmarts

In Falfurrias, city leaders did everything they could to convince Wal-Mart to stay. In McAllen, the old store is now a public library.

By Graham Dickie July 11, 2017 10:30 am|

The cliché is well-known: Walmart comes into a small town, bankrupts local mom-and-pop businesses, and draws the ire of longtime residents. But the recent demise of the only Walmart in the south Texas town of Falfurrias has flipped this typical big box store, versus small town narrative on its head. Meanwhile, just down Highway 281 in McAllen, another former Walmart presents a different story of retail redemption.

Rumors around Falfurrias say the local Walmart was Sam Walton’s favorite. He used to visit the Valley to hunt quail on the area’s massive ranches, and people claim he built a store here so he could have a ready supply of ammunition close-by.

Although modest in size by Walmart standards, it was once the largest structure in this rough-and-tumble town in deep south Texas. But now, like much else in the town, it’s closed its doors.

“When I was young, it was awesome. It was a beautiful. We were all happy. Back then, when I was young, maybe like 30’s,” says Yahyah, a lifelong resident of Falfurrias. She prefers to go by just her nickname.

“There’s nothing here no more. There’s no Walmart. Nowhere to go shopping. Nowhere to go out. Se está poniendo peor.” [It’s getting worse.] she says.

For many residents like Yahyah, the loss of the Walmart has come to embody the town’s misfortunes. It closed near the end of 2015, but many are still scratching their heads as to why.

“I’ve never known the truth because according to what I hear they were making pretty good money,” says David Longoria, the mayor of Falfurrias. He and a local consultant pleaded with Walmart to stay.

“We offered them some land over here,” says Longoria. “Anything they wanted for them to stay. They didn’t want it. It was a ‘no.’”

Multiple residents blame the recent renovation of Highway 281, a major thoroughfare at the edge of town. It made the Walmart harder to reach, causing it to lose all of its trucker traffic.

In other words, what seemed like minor and healthy infrastructure improvement brought down the whole town.

“That hurt,” one man says. Because whatever the reason for the departure, the ramifications of losing a store like Walmart in Falfurrias are huge. Here, jobs are scarce; oil booms that have pumped up other small south Texas towns missed this area.

Elise Vera cashiered at the Walmart after graduating from Falfurrias High School. She was lucky to find a good job at the courthouse but other former co-workers lost their pensions.

“It’s upsetting because I feel like that’s pretty much the only thing we have around here within a 30-mile, 40-mile distance,” Vera says. “We now have that less business around here.”

Mayor Longoria hopes Tractor Supply will move in and fill the Walmart space, but the future is unclear, and the building remains for sale.

Meanwhile, about 80 miles down south Highway 281, I find myself in McAllen outside another former Walmart building. But this one isn’t sitting empty.
We’re in the McAllen Public Library, and library director Kate Horan is showing us their 3D printing lab. The city bought this building from Walmart and opened the library in 2012. It has been turned into a state-of-the-art facility featuring virtual reality gear, a massive computer lab, ESL courses, services to help people file income taxes, private video conferencing rooms, study areas, a cafe, a large collection of Spanish-language works, dedicated play areas for toddlers and rooms for teenagers.

And much of the building is largely repurposed from the original structure Walmart left behind.

“We do have people that come in and say, ‘I remember when this was a Walmart. The women’s section was over here. The small appliances were over here,’” Horan says.

The library has been a hit. At 5:30 PM on a Wednesday, the parking lot is totally packed.

Graham Dickie

The interior of the McAllen Public Library, a former Walmart. Many of the original building materials were recycled.

“There are many, many reasons why people come to the library,” Horan says. “I consider it one of the last bastions of democracy. It’s one of the few places people can go to without having to be questioned.”

Amber Payton from nearby Sullivan City spent her entire day here. Outside the library by a large fountain, the sun is setting, and the vibe couldn’t be more different from the outside of the vacant Falfurrias Walmart.

“It’s a very awesome, unique feeling to know I’m standing in a place that used to be a Walmart and they turned it into something even better for our children and our families to come and enjoy themselves,” Payton says. “It’s just — I think they should do more things for our families and stuff with the condemned buildings we have all over the place. Everywhere you look there’s a lot of buildings going down, and if they could turn it into something like this it’d be more fun for us. So we have more things to do. So it is a pretty awesome feeling.”

Graham Dickie

The abandoned Wal-Mart in Falfurrias on Highway 281. Its closing at the end of 2015 has demoralized the town.