Moscow is a small University and farming-supported town with a population of about 25,000 - a very large proportion of this population including University of Idaho students. 7 miles away, across the state border is Pullman, Washington. Pullman is also dominated by a university, Washington State University, and has a population somewhat larger than Moscow's, but the two are of a comparable size. Pullman and Moscow serve as the retail centers for the very small surrounding towns (Troy Potlatch, or Deary Idaho, and Albion or Colfax in Washington to name a few). Currently, Moscow's retail business is somewhat better than Pullman's. Moscow has had a Wal-Mart (not a Supercenter) for many years, and it has drawn in business from surrounding areas, including Pullman, for years. There are proposed Wal-Mart Supercenters in both Pullman and Moscow. While I am not clear on what is planned for the current Moscow Wal-Mart, I have heard talk of it being turned into a distribution center.
On Monday night, the Moscow Civic Association held a panel discussion and public forum on the subject of how a Wal-Mart Supercenter might affect Moscow's economy. We were fortunate to have on the meeting's panel a rural development specialist from the University of Idaho named Stephen Cooke who was able to provide some numbers to start the conversation. He gave a run-down of the work (.pdf) of Kenneth E. Stone at Iowa State University, who has been looking at the effect of Wal-Marts establishing themselves in rural communities. The study isn't very long (22 pages with graphs) so I encourage you to check it out for yourself. But, to put it as concisely as Dr. Cooke did at the meeting, "The only thing worse than having a Wal-Mart in your town is not having one." More specifically, the picture painted by Stone's work was one that showed the demise of towns of Moscow's size when they were situated close to other mid-sized towns (say, for instance, Pullman, WA) that did have Wal-Marts situated in them. Depressingly, the long-term picture for retail sales in midsized towns that did have Wal-Marts wasn't fantastic, as Wal-Mart saturation creates competition between Wal-Marts - but I think it's only a little melodramatic to say that watching a Wal-Mart set itself down in a nearby town is fatal to your town's retail sales.
Tune in for part II where I'll discuss what I see as possible outcomes. In the meantime, check out WakeUpWalMart.com for information on how Wal-Mart is affecting the US economy and the US people, and the different ways communities are defending themselves and their citizens against Wal-Mart's predatory business practices.
See parts II and III of what I've written about Moscow and Wal-Mart.