Opinion: Augusta’s proposed new Walmart

This editorial was originally posted here.

Despite the fact that it’s been nearly a year since I moved away from Augusta, I still feel deep ties to the city. It was my home for eight years, and in that time I made lifelong friends and developed a strong attachment to the CSRA’s natural beauty and culture. As such, I still keep up with a lot of what’s happening back in my second home.

Today I learned through my friend Kenny that a new Walmart is planned for the Augusta area. The “two-state” (as some hate to call it) currently boasts five Walmarts: off Deans Bridge in “south Augusta”, off Bobby Jones in Martinez, off Washington Road in Evans, off I-20 in Grovetown, and off Knox Avenue in North Augusta, SC. The new proposed location is in the Forest Hills shopping center at Wrightsboro Road and North Leg, roughly between the Deans Bridge and Bobby Jones locations. Here is a beauteous map:

View Augusta-Area Walmarts in a larger map

My first reaction upon hearing the location was that it seemed like a good spot for a Walmart. A lot of people live over that way who would rather drive up to Martinez than go down to the Deans Bridge Walmart. Thinking about it further, that seems like a classist opinion…south Augusta isn’t going to get any nicer if people continue to treat it like the red-headed stepchild. And now that I look at the map, I can feel myself slowly migrating towards Kenny’s reaction, which was:

Cause Augusta needs ANOTHER Walmart… What in the actual hell?

Others have pointed out that traffic at that intersection, which is something like a block or two away from two major shopping centers (Augusta Mall further down Wrightsboro and the Augusta Exchange up on Wheeler), is already insane, and this would make things even worse.

Still, you can’t deny the demand for a place like Walmart, especially with the double whammy of our current economy and a low-income, low-cost-of-living place like Augusta. Many specialty stores have considered coming to town, only to eventually back out. The one that finally made it, Costco, is a bargain-hunting boutique. There are higher-end shopping options in Augusta, especially at the Augusta Mall, which saw extensive renovations in recent years. It remains to be seen whether those will last. Meanwhile, I’m not sure the city can sustain much beyond what it already has, for the simple fact that people in Augusta don’t make enough money.

There are wealthy people in the area, don’t get me wrong. But they are hardly the majority. Augusta sees big spending during one week in April; for that one week, people who do have money come into town and spend a lot of it, and Augusta is made glamorous and even ritzy. For the rest of the year, Augusta is a place where–for example–the arts are in a constant struggle for survival, even when the economy is good, because most people don’t make enough money for art to be a high priority.

We’ve seen that for the common worker, wages and salaries have plateaued for decades. In a city like Augusta, where the cost of living is quite low, that means the opportunity for real growth is small. Ultimately, the economy depends on the people infusing it with money. When the people don’t have any money, no growth is possible. (And a tax cut isn’t going to help someone who doesn’t have anything to begin with. What she needs is a higher wage.)

So you can see why, in this sort of environment, a store like Walmart would thrive. Why people would want and even need the convenience and low prices. Why it actually isn’t strange to plant a sixth Walmart within the same roughly 120 square mile area.

Depressing, yes. But strange? Not at all.