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Rumors of an area Wal-Mart are greatly exaggerated, for nowBy STERRY BUTCHERMARFA, ALPINE - Have you heard that Wal-Mart is coming to Marfa? Have you heard it’s coming to Alpine? We’ve heard that too, but it looks like the Wal-Mart story is just a rumor for now. Kim Randle is the regional public affairs manager who deals with questions about Wal-Mart openings and developments in Texas. Wal-Mart rumors get going every once in a while around here, and when this round was rolling a few weeks ago, the Sentinel contacted Randall, who indicated Wal-Mart wasn’t coming. She said the same thing this week.“We don’t have any current plans for Alpine and the same is true for Marfa and Presidio,” she said late Wednesday afternoon. Marfa Mayor David Lanman came to that conclusion on his own recently. City Hall has yet to field a call from the corporate giant asking for information on water-sewer facilities, land annexation, local tax rates or anything else, for that matter. “There is no evidence to think that Wal-Mart is coming to this region,” Lanman said this week. “I think we’d be abreast of such investment in the community.”Most rumors die down after a few weeks, but this one had legs. Some versions of the story were mighty specific, which lent credence to their believability. “The mayor heard that Ray Hendryx was running it on the radio,” Marfa City Administrator Florencio Sauceda said this week. “But we called him. He didn’t do it.”Then there was a version that involved Dave Durant, a Border Patrol agent and businessman who owns the Ramada Inn in Alpine. He allegedly acquired land to put the Wal-Mart just down the street from the hotel, near the Shotgun Grill and Moseley Lane. Wal-Mart representatives were supposed to be holed up in a Ramada room, figuring out the details of the plan. Not true, he says.“There’s no land deal,” he said, laughing. There aren’t corporate wonks sitting on beds in a Ramada room, busily poring over construction renderings and working on merchandise distribution points?“Not that I know of,” he said. “There’s nothing like that to my knowledge.”Oil millionaire and former politician Clayton Williams was featured in a couple versions of the Wal-Mart story. In these tales, Williams had reportedly sold Wal-Mart some of his ranchland between Marfa and Alpine. “The lady who cuts my husband’s hair spoke with the manager of a store in Odessa who said it was a done deal,” said Florence Cox, the owner of an Alpine business called Prairie Cargo. She volunteered that the friend-of-a-friend quality of the story wasn’t 100 percent, reliable proof that a Wal-Mart was coming, but then again, there were elements of the account that seemed like they could have been true.“I heard that Clayton Williams sold land near the Marfa lights viewing center, and that it was going to be a Super Wal-Mart, with gas, groceries and the whole nine yards,” said Cox. “We’ve been hearing rumors forever.”Clayton Williams was in a meeting the first time we called this week, but Denise Kelly, his executive assistant and knower-of-all-things Clayton, laughed out loud when asked if her boss had any Wal-Mart dealings in the works out here.“That’s hilarious,” she crowed. “He’ll get a kick out of that.”Her instincts were confirmed the next day.“He’s had nothing to do with it, he’s not been contacted by Wal-Mart and he’s not selling any land,” she said. “After dealing with numbers and drilling and oil all day, he found the rumor to be a bright spot in his day, something fun and lighthearted.”Well, that’s nice. It hasn’t always been a rumor that Wal-Mart was seeking territory out here. In 1986 the corporation was almost to the point of breaking ground in west Alpine. Land was annexed, plans were published for a 130,000 square foot shopping center and McDonald’s was supposed to move in. There was opposition, however, from small store owners in town that feared their businesses would collapse under the pressure of the superstore’s famously low prices and famously wide selection of goods and services. The state’s savings and loan scandal broke about the same time, and Wal-Mart tiptoed out of the Big Bend scene until about four years ago, when another deal near Sunny Glen was nearly inked before it, too, fell through.Wal-Mart could still happen here, everyone senses it, and that’s part of what kept the most recent rumors alive. Look at the Pecos and Fort Stockton areas, which have population centers of about 12,000 people apiece. Both communities boast Wal-Marts. The greater Big Bend has somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 people, and that’s not counting the folks who live in Ojinaga, Chihuahua. Population isn’t the only Wal-Mart’s only consideration in developing a new store, said Randle, the Wal-Mart rep.“They do extensive research in determining locations for our facilities,” she explained. “There are many, many factors that are evaluated. Wal-Mart continually looks at markets and how to serve customers appropriately in ongoing, existing locations as well as developing ones.”Is this the kind of area they’re looking at? Has the Big Bend caught Wal-Mart’s eye recently? If Wal-Mart were to come, would they be in close contact with local city and county officials?“As I said previously,” Randle replied, “they evaluate all kinds of factors. There are many different discussions that take place and I can’t speculate what might happen in the future.”Whether it would be on the west side of Alpine, east of Marfa, down in Presidio or someplace in between, a future Wal-Mart does have some support here.“It’d be fantastic if it happens on the edge of Presidio County,” said one Alpine businessman who didn’t want to be named. “It can help your little town and your little community. It may very well happen east of Marfa, which is going to create a lot of customer traffic leaving Alpine to shop in Marfa.”Not everyone was so enthusiastic.“I think we all know there are pluses and minuses about it,” said Doug Burns, the branch president for the West Texas National Bank, who also indicated he’d heard the rumors but found them unsubstantiated. “From the business standpoint there are a lot of negatives against small businesses.”Small businesses that carve out some kind of a niche, like excellent customer service, might be able to hang on if challenged by Wal-Mart, he said.“You may not get service from a big place like Wal-Mart,” Burns explained. “I’m proud of Morrison’s True Value – they’re such a good service organization. They reach out, roll up their sleeves, and you wouldn’t get that from Wal-Mart. But Wal-Mart has such a magnetic draw. It’s phenomenal, their power.”Wal-Mart is among the nation’s largest employers, though it has drawn ire for its wages, its health insurance and labor practices, the stultifying strip-mall sameness it creates in local retail markets, and the drive for growth that has made it ubiquitous in most towns and a presence now in China, Mexico and other countries. The mega-store’s arrival in Big Bend would also signal a sort of urban shift that would be unwelcome to some. Sure, the milk and detergent are cheap and you can pick up a wedding present, get your birthday party photos developed, drop off a prescription and buy baby shoes all in the same place. It’d be awfully convenient. But is that what people here want?“From what I get, it’s a 50/50 split of people who’d like to see and who don’t want to see it,” said Lanman. “A lot of us are concerned that the last of the prairie remain unscarred. I think it’d be a shame for it to develop into box stores – that’s my opinion.”Cox thinks so too.“As much as people like stuff from Wal-Mart, it would ruin scenery,” she said. “I love that part of highway near the Marfa lights. I hope it’s a nasty rumor. Think of what will spring up around it – a truck stop and all the stuff that goes along with that. We should cross our fingers that they won’t get this far.”
Dave Durant, a Border Patrol agent and businessman who owns the Ramada Inn in Alpine.
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