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Economy & Business

Shoppers Contemplate Options as Central City Walmart Closes

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Marti Mikkelson
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Walmart at Midtown Center is closing on Thursday.

Thursday is the last day residents of Milwaukee’s central city will be able to shop at Walmart at Midtown Center. 

The store is one of several in the Milwaukee area that the company is shuttering in a major restructuring move. City leaders are scrambling to minimize the impact on the neighborhood.

Walmart at Midtown Center was packed last Friday night. Thousands of shoppers were taking advantage of the store’s 50 percent off sale. Bobby Peterson says he comes here several times a week to buy food and clothing for his family.

“We got familiar with this place, good sales and all that, we really needed one in the inner city like this,” Peterson says.

I asked Peterson what he’d like to see in Walmart’s place. He answered, “Another Walmart.” The next closest company store is several miles away, and that distance concerns shopper Kadejah Lewis.

“I think it’s going to cause a lot of trouble for people who don’t have transportation in this area because this is the closest Walmart. A lot of people in this area, it’s going to be harder for them to buy groceries and clothes and stuff,” Lewis says.

“Our first concern is for the 270 employees, full and part time, who work there," says Rocky Marcoux, head of Milwaukee’s Department of City Development. He says the news took city leaders by surprise, and now they’re trying to help the workers land jobs.

Yet Marcoux insists the closing of Walmart does not signal the demise of Midtown Center. The place has a storied history; some of you may remember, in the 1960s, it was called Capitol Court.

“That shopping center aged, lost a number of its anchors and ultimately fell into a state of disrepair. The city did a pretty aggressive remake of Capitol Court. The old shopping center was largely demolished and the Midtown Center that we know today was established,” Marcoux says.

Midtown Center took advantage of city incentives and opened in 2002, with anchor stores Walmart and Lowe’s. Lowe’s closed in 2009, during the Great Recession, so now with Walmart leaving, the largest retailer in the complex will be Pick 'n Save.

Recently, a Planet Fitness and Rue 21 clothing store moved in and later this year, Children’s Hospital will open a clinic at the site. Marcoux says the city will aggressively pursue smaller tenants.

“We don’t necessarily need another big box, what we need is retailers, plural. We would be better positioned if we had a grouping of smaller stores than putting all of our eggs in one basket with these larger stores which really are at the mercy of the national trends and decisions that aren’t made locally,” he says.

There has been a national trend away from locating big box stores at shopping centers, according to Joe Cortright. He runs City Observatory, an urban policy think tank based in Oregon.

“We’re seeing a change in the structure of retailing in the U.S. Some of it has to do with more internet sales. Some of it has to do with changed shopping and travel habits. I think Walmart is deciding to focus on the pieces that they do well, which are the big super centers and particularly, locations in suburban and rural areas,” Cortright says.

Cortright says city leaders have their work cut out for them, replacing Walmart with stores that fit the needs of the neighborhood. Those include affordable merchandise.