What’s in the cards? Retail travails, prevails

“We had a great weekend,” said Scott Nielsen, who’s owned the place for 30 years.

Despite the weather and the workday, Nielsen’s shop appears bustling, but he insists it’s not.

“Business has been good, but 15 years ago we had 15 coworkers,” he said, as a small knot of older women perused purses that line his walls. “Now we have three.”

Closely related to tourism, Haywood County’s retail sector has risen and fallen with the times and the trends but remains an important economic sector that disbursed more than $75 million in wages in 2016.

Perplexingly, wage growth in this sector since 2000 has been negative against inflation and may be helping to fuel Haywood County’s affordable housing crisis; that average weekly wage of $355.15 in 2000 should be worth at least $514 today just to keep pace with inflation. At that wage, an affordable home would cost $53,456.

Instead, the 2016 average weekly wage for retail sector employees was $484, and the median home price was $157,200, making retail an economic development gamble that has in the past turned lemons into lemonade, but won’t bear fruit forever.

The true economic impact of a new or expanded Walmart on a community has been a hotly debated topic since the mid-1960s, but most all studies and reports seem to indicate a number of positives.

First and foremost, when a new Walmart comes to town — as it did in Waynesville in 2008 — a city or county retains jobs and revenues that might otherwise have gone to another community.

Sure, it can mean dire straits for smaller businesses, but it doesn’t have to and it isn’t always.

“We keep changing our product line to evolve with the customers. We can’t complain,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen’s Cabbage Rose was here long before the internet and long before the Walmart, which nationwide employs about 1 percent of all workers and collects more revenue in a year than the states of California, New York and Texas combined; Walmart’s 2015 corporate revenue could easily run the state of North Carolina for 10 years, or the town of Waynesville for 15,261 years.

On a single-store scale, a Walmart Supercenter like the one in Waynesville typically employs more than 300 associates and probably grosses about $1 million a week moving everything from microwave ovens to refrigerators to color TVs.

Given that sales taxes account for 18 percent of Haywood County’s proposed 2017-18 budget, the importance of the Walmart and the other major retail establishments located just off South Main Street cannot be understated, especially over an extended period of time.

But if it wasn’t for the Haywood Economic Development Council and the Haywood Advancement Foundation, that nexus of economic activity might still be just a rusting, overgrown post-industrial visage of blight and pollution.

In the early 1940s, the Dayton Rubber Company established a substantial facility in what was then the Town of Hazelwood that became a mainstay of the postwar economic boom until like the boom itself, it eventually petered out just before the turn of the 21st century. At the time of its closing the factory employed more than 500 in making rubber hoses for automobiles.

“They closed, I think it was around 1997,” said Mark Clasby, executive director of the Haywood Economic Development Council.

The sprawling brownfield languished for years, though several attempts at reutilization had been made by the time Clasby began his economic development duties in 2003, when the property was in bankruptcy, owed back taxes and was still awaiting the Dayco-funded remediation of a spill that had tainted some soil.

“Under a government, buying and selling property can be a challenge, “said Clasby, who also serves as the director of the Haywood Advancement Foundation, a 501(c)3. “The county gave a $650,000 grant to the foundation, and the town of Waynesville gave a $650,000 grant to the foundation.”

With that $1.3 million, the foundation bought the property, entered into discussions with developers, brokered a $750,000 cleanup timeline with Dayco and arranged for the demolition of existing buildings on the site.

Shortly thereafter, the foundation sold the property to Walmart developers for $2.1 million, and repaid both the county’s and the town’s grants, although Clasby said the foundation wasn’t obligated to do so.

“We felt that would be the right thing to do,” he said. “It was really a good deal.”

The foundation had “quite a bit” of cash into the deal, according to Clasby, but after expenses still walked with a tidy profit, which it then used on other economic development incentives — in essence, playing with house money.

Businesses like Nielsen’s show that communities benefit from the coexistence of major retailers with small-town mom-and-pop shops — or, in at least one case, small-town mom-and-daughter shops.

“My daughter and I run this place together,” said Sheree Rose, owner of the Turquoise Elephant,…