BY Ellen Thompson and Larry Kline/Havre Daily News
As Wal-Mart looks into opening a store in Havre, local businesses brace for impact.
Scott Young, owner of Norman's Ranch and Sportswear, sees both bad and good in the prospect. "It's going to hurt some stores that are here," he said, adding, "it might draw people into town too."
Young said if Wal-Mart does come, his store won't make any strategic changes. "Our store is more of a specialty store and more people coming into town, I think, will benefit us," he said.
Cecil Durbin, who owns the Ben Franklin store in Havre, says he's worried.
"It's definitely a concern," he said. "It would be foolish not to be concerned."
Wal-Mart spokesman Eric Berger said Wednesday the company is looking into opening a store west of town and has hired an engineering and architectural firm to study a site near Kmart. He said no decision has been made yet on the type and size of the proposed Wal-Mart.
Local businesspeople and shoppers said they worry that competition from a Wal-Mart would force downtown businesses to close. Their fears, they said, are based on what they've read and seen about Wal-Mart's impact on other small communities.
In Montana, Wal-Mart has stores in Great Falls, Missoula, Helena, Bozeman, Butte, Kalispell, Polson, Billings and Miles City.
Some in Miles City say the arrival of Wal-Mart there seven years ago has harmed the town.
If the Wal-Mart building ever caught fire, said Ken Hess, owner of Miles City's Kickin' Ass Hat Co., "every local businessman in town would be out there fanning the embers."
Durbin has already thought of some ways to respond if Wal-Mart opens in Havre. "We'll need to adjust our merchandise mix and prices to deal with the competition," he said.
Ben Franklin sells materials for making arts and crafts, as well as collectibles. Some of those products are also carried by Wal-Mart, he said. But Durbin said his store is different, with more variety in each craft department and more specialized items.
"It's a bigger concern for the community at large because I'm well aware of what (Wal-Mart) can do to a smaller community," Durbin said. "They really decimate a small town's downtown. Smaller businesses find it hard to compete."
Tracy Job, manager of Gary & Leo's IGA, said his advice is that local businesses behave as though Wal-Mart is already in Havre and start to respond by learning how to compete.
"They would have an effect on most everything that we do and sell," he said. "We're going to take the next year and evaluate everything that we're doing and we're going to do the best we can to compete."
Job is skeptical about the extent to which Wal-Mart will be good for the community overall.
"Everything I've read and anything I've seen as far as Wal-Mart invading a community of our size, they come in under the umbrella of providing hundreds of jobs and a variety of low-cost goods. I just question ... whether they're providing a living wage for people and whether they're providing any company-paid benefits as opposed to government-provided benefits," Job said. "They may not be a positive influence for our community when it's all said and done."
Jim Clark, co-owner of Sears, said he thinks he'll be able to compete.
"There are certain items here in the store that Wal-Mart doesn't have," he said. "I would expect that when the time comes Sears will have a plan."
A Bi-Mart representative, Don Leber, said in a phone interview from the company's headquarters in Eugene, Ore., that Bi-Mart is accustomed to competing with Wal-Mart.
"They are in most of the markets we're in," he said. Bi-Mart has 64 stores in the Northwest.
"Obviously it brings competition, it brings someone else to town who will take a slice of the pie," he said. But the Bi-Mart stores have lower overhead than Wal-Mart stores, he said.
Leber had advice for local merchants: "The best thing any business can do is know what your business is. It's really just identifying what your strengths are and maybe modifying some of your product lines. If you're a borderline business that is already struggling, yes, this could be the shock that takes you out."
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber board of directors will discuss the possible impacts of Wal-Mart next week.
Havre-area shoppers expressed mixed opinions Thursday.
Norman Maze of Havre is strongly against it.
"I think it's a bad thing," he said. "If Wal-Mart came in, they'd put Kmart out of business. I think it would put small businesses out. (Wal-Mart) wants to dominate the market."
Norman's wife, Margaret, said she would rather see a highway project or other large construction project that would create jobs for people, rather than a Wal-Mart.
Walter Hill, also of Havre, said: "I think it'd be bad because it would crowd somebody else out."
Wal-Mart brings unfair competition to small communities, said Jerome Main of Hays. "They seem to put small businesses out," he said. "They can undersell everybody, and I don't think that's right."
Nicole Conder of Havre said she knows a lot of people who go to Great Falls just for the Wal-Mart. "I think it's awesome" that it might come to Havre, she said.
"Wal-Mart does a lot more for the community," she said. "It will bring in more people and create more options for shopping."
Wal-Mart will diversify the shopping options in Havre, said Patrice Colliflower of Rocky Boy. But she said she is a little worried about the small businesses in town.
"This is a small-business town," she said.
Colliflower said she also knows people who go to Great Falls just for the Wal-Mart and its low prices.
"It would cut down on people's costs" if one opened in Havre, she said.