When 38-year-old Chris Davis views the new Walmart Supercenter at 5018 Ames Ave., he sees more than a discount store. He sees an enormous engine churning out jobs and paychecks and generating the kind of horsepower that promotes economic growth.
“There's been no other company to bring this many opportunities to north Omaha,” said Davis, a former telemarketer who's been promoted twice since being hired by Walmart in late October. “There hasn't been anything of this size in the community for years.”
The supercenter opened today at 8 a.m. after a 7:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting. Also at 8 a.m. today, Walmart opened its sixth Omaha-area Neighborhood Market, the retailer's smaller grocery store format, at 2541 N. 90th St., again after a 7:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting.
The $30 million supercenter features a full-line grocery store with a bakery, deli, fresh produce department and a selection of local products, including Mister C's Spaghetti Sauce and Dorothy Lynch Salad Dressing. The general merchandise aisles are stocked with everything from big-screen televisions to cookware and clothing.
In an effort to provide one-stop shopping, the supercenter — open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. — also houses a SAC Federal Credit Union, Subway restaurant, SmartStyle Family Hair Salon and a Walmart pharmacy and vision center.
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“This is not just another Walmart opening up, this is an investment in the community,” said Ben Gray, the district's City Council member. And wherever Walmart locates, other retailers tend to “follow,” said Winsley Durand, senior director of recruitment at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
Retail jobs at chain discount stores have been routinely described as being low-wage, dead-end positions. But the supercenter's supporters don't view the new store in that light. In an area that has been without a neighborhood supermarket or general merchandise store, Walmart's arrival has been cause for celebration.
The Shopko at 7402 N. 30th St., a source of general merchandise, closed in 2001. Three years later, Baker's Supermarket, the main retailer in the 50th and Ames area, closed when the company opened a new Baker's store at 72nd and Ames. In 2005, Super Saver opened a grocery store at the site but closed it about a year later, citing low profits.
“Yes, there are some auto parts stores, some drugstores, but beyond that — this area stood out as a big void. This part of Omaha was not served by the big-box stores you see located throughout the city,” said Jeff Keating, vice president of PDM Inc., owner of 50 Ames Place, the strip center to the west of the new Walmart.
The new 175,000-square-foot supercenter, an area the equivalent of three football fields, has already hired more than 300 part- and full-time workers, many of whom have been on the job for a month or more. “We hired a high percentage of our employees from here. Most are within walking distance,” store manager Todd Kjosen said.
Davis, who supervises the grocery department's dairy and fresh food cases — “anything with an expiration date” — oversees a crew of six, including 24-year-old Giovani Kellogg, a former construction worker who viewed Walmart as an opportunity to “move up.”
Kjosen hired Kellogg on the spot at a recent job fair and described him as “talkative, friendly” and willing to do any kind of work.
“People have concerns about what they (Walmart) pay and their benefits,” Gray said. “I'm not trying to run from that. We have young people going to school that need a part-time job and people that don't have transportation ... and individuals who've been unemployed for a significant period of time — this is not going to bail them out, but this is going to help.
“If other companies see this kind of development, they'll come in. You got to do it step by step.”
When the largest retailer in the world shows up at your door, it's a “tremendous benefit,” Keating said. “There's a handful of national retailers that want to be next to Walmart. I can't name names, but we are negotiating with three of those national tenants,” he said.
Besides the potential economic impact, the supercenter is also expected to help eliminate the area's status as a “food desert,” a federal designation that describes an area in which “at least 500 people ... or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population ... resides more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“This will provide folks with the opportunity to get a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Again with transportation being an issue, they'll be able to shop near their home,” Durand said.
Betty Frazier, who has lived all of her 68 years in north Omaha, expects to see friends and neighbors stocking the shelves, running the cash registers or filling the dairy case when she visits the new Walmart.
“There are people here who don't drive or don't have access to a car and this store is right in the middle of the neighborhood,” Frazier said.
It's a three-block walk to work for Clyde Jacobs, 53. The new Walmart employee works as a night stocker, filling the stores' shelves from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. “I used to work at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs,” said Jacobs. “I would get off work at 8 p.m. or 11 p.m. and transportation home was an issue.”
Jacobs earns $9.60 an hour. “It doesn't pay a lot, but they say you can advance really quickly here. I have a co-worker who moved up to be a Walmart supervisor.”
Said Preston Love Jr., a community activist: “I personally know a lot of people that got jobs there. That's the real deal.”
Seeing friends, neighbors and even family members on the job is important, as is knowing that your purchases constitute a portion of their paycheck.
“It helps the dollars stay close to home,” said Deidra Andrews, program director of the Urban League of Nebraska. Walmart “really wanted to hire within the community.”
Last week, employees were putting the finishing touches on the store. Bakery workers were testing out the new fryers and making batches of doughnuts for breakfast and fried chicken nuggets for lunch.
Robert Ricks, a new Walmart employee, stepped outside to catch a breath of fresh but frigid air.
The 25-year-old merchandise supervisor had been on the job for only three weeks. Ricks said that “getting hired was pretty easy” and that working at Walmart would mean a regular paycheck, unlike previous stints working construction.
“This will keep me going in the wintertime,” Ricks said, smiling.
As he turned to chat with another new hire on break, a late model sedan pulled up in front of the store. The driver, Thelma Bennett, wearing a green knit hat and sunglasses, rolled down the passenger window and asked if the supercenter was open yet.
“Next Wednesday,” a worker replied.
Bennett, who is retired and raising two relatives, ages 4 and 18, said it was her second trip to the supercenter in two weeks to check on its status. She said she was eager for the supercenter to open.
“Right now I have to drive up to 99th and Blair (High Road) to shop,” she said. “I live in the neighborhood and this is just like home.”