Oberlin prepares for Wal-Mart
The town of Oberlin is home to Kendall and the Apollo, the Big Parade and the Farmers’ Market, flower-filled springs and snowbound winters. Soon Oberlin will be home to something else, but whether residents will embrace or reject this newest addition remains to be seen.
Since Wal-Mart first announced its plans to build a location in Oberlin, the corporation has been met with lawsuits and concerns about environmental practicality. Now, with construction looming in the near future, the merchants and business owners of downtown Oberlin and Oberlin Main Street are gearing up for what will be a hard fight against the big-box superstore.
Wal-Mart, currently the world’s largest retailer, is often criticized for driving out smaller, independently-owned businesses with its wide variety of goods and low prices. With the superstore to be built in close proximity to downtown Oberlin on Route 20, just a t10 minute car ride away, Oberlin merchants are feeling legitimate in their concerns that the Wal-Mart will be damaging to their individual businesses.
Many local merchants and small business owners have expressed their concerns about the appearance of such a big competitor on the horizon.
“[The coming of Wal-Mart] definitely will have an effect, mostly negative in my estimation,” said Dave Parsch, the owner of Dave’s Army/Navy Store on Oberlin Main Street.
Parsch said that, for him, one particular problem that will come with the new retailer, along with competition for downtown stores, is traffic.
“We are expecting an increase of at least 5000 cars per day from different directions which may be good for the business, but it will also cause a lot of traffic,” he said. “There will be pretty much constant traffic, you won’t get these quiet moments anymore.”
Parsch also added that during the recent years things have changed significantly in the downtown area. While there used to be more stores in and around downtown Oberlin that suited the needs of the overall community, such as drug stores and hardware stores, the number of such stores is dwindling.
Now downtown is more restaurant-oriented and Wal-Mart is going to accelerate this alienation of the community from downtown, he said.
Other employees from the downtown area shared Parsch’s sentiments.
“It’s going to affect a lot of downtown,” said Kraig Reber, a meat manager at Missler’s. “Just look at what happened in other towns.”
Krista Long, owner and manager at Ben Franklin, agreed with him.
“Downtowns have changed a lot, bit by bit,” she said. “There are very few stores now that serve basic goods in downtown, so we are obviously going to be impacted by it.”
Despite the fact that Oberlin is a college town, known as a bastion for the liberal and the socially conscious, some local merchants do not feel completely comfortable believing that college students will resist patronizing Wal-Mart, with its cheap prices and convenient hours of operation.
“In reality, people may feel a certain way and want to put values into effect, but when downtown shops are closed, or you need to go someplace else, you’ll go to the closest place, which will be Wal-Mart,” Long said.
“There will probably be some businesses that don’t survive,” Long ultimately admitted. She added that businesses like Wal-Mart are “destroying the American economy.”
Still, in the meantime, town-wide efforts are being made to prepare merchants for the Wal-Mart’s potential impacts.
“We’ve all been aware that this change has been coming for a long time,” Long said. “In my case, I’ve been implementing my own changes along the way.” Such changes involve, in Long’s opinion, finding a “niche,” an edge that other stores do not have. Hers is her wide variety of toys, the adjacent MindFair Bookstore, a frame shop and a collection of fabrics.
Others are also looking for ways to oppose, or reconcile, the changes. Main Street Oberlin, an initiative to preserve Oberlin’s historic downtown shops and buildings, will also play an integral role in trying to keep the town outside of Wal-Mart’s shadow by helping to maintain the town’s economic stability and unique atmosphere.
Geof Comings, the director of Main Street Oberlin and a lifelong Oberlin resident, explained that the efforts involved bringing people into the town to enjoy cultural events such as College-sponsored theater and music productions. While in Oberlin, these people would be encouraged to eat in restaurants and visit the shops.
Outsiders have also stepped in to support the concerns of the town’s merchants and business owners. In mid-April, Ken Stone, professor emeritus of economics at Iowa State University, visited the Lorain County Joint Vocational School to offer advice and strategies on how independent businesses can compete with retailers such as Wal-Mart.
“It is possible to co-exist in a mass merchandise environment,” Stone said, “but you have to change. You have to reposition yourself in the marketplace.”
Stone went on to stress the importance of developing a strategy. Echoing Long’s plan of action, Stone told merchants that they should find their individual competitive advantage to determine what makes their business successful and the “better choice” over other equivalent businesses. He also emphasized that merchants should begin to consider sharpening their prices and pricing skills.
Chairman of City Council Daniel Gardner offered his insight.
“I do see, by and large, that people have come to accept the fact that Wal-Mart is coming rather than contesting its coming,.” he said. “Now it has become more of a question of how we can continue to promote a healthy downtown and so on and so on. Some things that have emerged are more recognition of the importance of shopping downtown, and I think more organized events along these lines are to come.”
When asked how legitimate he thought the concerns were that Wal-Mart would have harmful impacts on Oberlin’s small independent businesses, Gardner said, “It would be foolish to say there will be no impact. There is reason for at least some of the merchants downtown to have concern, but in many cases there are the possibilities of making changes to their businesses to adapted.”
Gardner did add that, with a lawsuit pending filed by 11 Oberlin residents, the Carlyle Shop and the Oberlin Land Company against the Wal-Mart being built, there is no telling when the corporation will be granted permission to begin construction.
Still, even with all of these concerns, others are optimistic about the upcoming change. Laura, a town resident, stated her opinion that Wal-Mart can prove to be very good for the town.
“We need business in town,” she said. “We need all the jobs we can get.”
She expressed discontent with what is available among the businesses in downtown Oberlin, saying that the only reason she goes there is to eat.
“I don’t think it will hurt the grocery stores [in town] so much. Oberlin has a lot of old residents and they prefer small grocery stores,” she added.
Among her other concerns with the negative attitude towards the coming of the retailer was the fact that even people who approve of its appearance do not speak up at city council meetings.
Yet there is one thing that people on both sides of the barricade agreed on.
“I’d really like to see the town continue to do well,” Comings said. ”Whenever you tell people where you’re from in this entire area, you’ll get a response. We have something really special here.”
Others backed this opinion as well.
“It’s a wonderful little town,” Parsch said.