Tom Kacich | Many in Clinton again view Walmart as villain

Tom Kacich | Many in Clinton again view Walmart as villain

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When Walmart opened a store in Clinton in 1983, it marked the beginning of a wave of big box retail in central Illinois and accelerated the demise of the traditional downtown business districts.

Area retailers watched anxiously as the once quaint, photogenic downtown square in Clinton changed quickly. Dozens of small businesses, many of them locally owned and part of the community for decades, soon closed. The anxiety was deepened by the demolition of the 90-year-old county courthouse, which had been like a wedding cake centerpiece on the square.

The modest Walmart — only 35,000 square feet, compared with stores more than six times as large built 10 or 20 years later in Champaign and Urbana — was viewed as the villain.

Today, 35 years later, the Walmart that opened on the west edge of the city and pulled more business out with it, is closing. Its last day of business will be July 20.

Many DeWitt County residents are not happy.

"Walmart ruined the downtown when it came to town. It destroyed the downtown business, and now they're leaving and we've got nothing," said farmer John Werts, who said he has lived in DeWitt County his entire life.

His wife, Kay, who retired last year after teaching high school for 33 years, joined her husband in naming some of the score of businesses that had been on the square but closed: Spurgeon's, Gotleb's, Love's, Murray Shoes, Stuart Toggery, Wilson's Hat and Dress, Sharp's, Cannnonball's, Red Wing Shoes.

"At homecoming, you picked your storefront and you decorated every window — every club, organization, class — and it was full," Kay Werts said. "I could tell you how many dress shops there were and how many men's clothing shops. It was a pretty special place."

"We had everything here. You didn't need to leave town for anything," John Werts said. "But when Walmart came in it was hard for these stores to compete."

Jerry Watkins, who has owned and operated Watkins Jewelry on the square for 30 years, said Walmart "ran three-fourths of the businesses off the square when it came into town."

Now that Walmart is closing, Watkins is hopeful of a downtown revival. There are at least eight vacant storefronts on the square.

"I've been talking to some people on the side to see if I could get them to come down here," he said. "I'd like to have a good clothing store here for men and women, and a shoe store. This is a very good town for business. You can survive here if you work hard. I've survived here for 30 years."

The Werts say they would like to see the downtown return to its glory days.

"I hope somebody tries to come back downtown, and I would support it definitely if they did try it," John Werts said.

"I think that everyone can revitalize the downtown. But that means you don't drive 20 to 30 miles north or south or east or west to buy your clothing," Kay Werts said.

Gary Riegel, a dentist in Clinton, said he believes Walmart is counting on DeWitt County residents to continue shopping at Walmart, even if it's 20 miles away in Decatur or Lincoln.

"They think people are going to drive out of town to their other Walmarts. I think they're full of it. I really do because a lot of people can't," said Riegel, who is bitter about the closing.

"If you go out in that parking lot at Walmart, it's always packed, so why can't they leave it here? It doesn't make sense," he said. "They played a good part in tearing up downtown. Let's face it: Most downtowns and squares in small towns, they need a lot of help. But here they did help to take down a lot of businesses."

Tim Followell, the city administrator in Clinton, said it's unrealistic to expect the downtown to return to what it was 35 years ago.

"I think it's nostalgia. Sure, I would like that to occur here and everywhere, but I don't see us being able to reverse that time clock. I firmly believe that the economy has moved on into e-commerce, which is always going to be the biggest obstacle to anybody going back to brick or mortar."

And Clinton's economy has changed, he said.

"Back when the square was in its heyday, we had three shifts at Revere Copper and Brass. We had three shifts at Wallace (now RR Donnelley). We had three shifts at the pottery barn (Clinton Imperial China). We had all of those workers. It's when the IGA was a 24-hour-a-day operation because the deli business alone with the midnight shifts was huge," Followell said. "You can't revert back to that."

Revere and Clinton Imperial China have closed, and now Followell is focused on finding a replacement for Walmart.

"We've already started reaching out. Good or bad, when we got the call (from Walmart) Wednesday morning, I basically had the feeling that it was just a business decision, that the business model doesn't fit here anymore. Knowing that it's irreversible — and I know a lot of people in the community are trying their hardest and it doesn't hurt to try — we went the other way and we started sending out to all the different people we know that the property is available," Followell said. "The whole concept is that we've thrown the net out and we're waiting to see if someone enters the net. It would be nice to see the place filled by the time Walmart lets the lease go, which is in January."

He doesn't blame Walmart exclusively for the damage done to downtown Clinton.

"I don't believe what everyone believes, that Walmart killed downtowns. The mall in Forsyth opened first (Hickory Point, 1978) and I believe that malls were the start of the death of downtowns because if (shoppers) had a choice of walking outside in the '70s and going store to store, or go in an air conditioned mall, that's what they did. That was the beginning of the end. And I think that what old Sam Walton did was to capitalize on the mall concept and put one big store under one roof.

"It's called business transition. It happens all the time, everywhere."

And once again, Clinton finds itself on the cusp of a business transition in retail. You can be sure that other area retailers are watching anxiously to see what happens after Walmart.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette columnist. His column appears on Sundays.