On Location: Hamilton, Missouri
Red & Dee Esry
BY: CATY BORUM, Co-Producer
We knew we had to tell the story of how government subsidies were given to Wal-Mart, and the consequences of those subsidies on local businesses. We decided that the best way to tell this complex story would be through the experience of a family-owned business that had been destroyed just because of unfair competition, but because of the incredible and disastrous effect of government subsidies given especially to Wal-Mart.
I began this research by looking into existing evidence – available to the public through the Freedom of Information Act – about government subsidies given to Wal-Mart Supercenters across the country. Because of the precise way in which Wal-Mart opens in a town and then systematically under prices its items in direct response to local competitors’ prices, it is possible to predict how long it would take certain kinds of business to close after Wal-Mart moved in. Grocery stores and hardware stores are the first to go, and it usually takes as little as six months to a year, post-Wal-Mart, for them to board up.
Missouri seemed like a natural starting point, as it had a state total of upwards of $20 million in subsidies given to Wal-Mart. After researching many towns and communities across Missouri, I stumbled across Cameron and Brookfield, Missouri, which had received $2.1 million and $300,000 in subsidy money.
I called the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce and talked casually to a friendly clerk about what life was like in Brookfield. We chatted about Wal-Mart, and then I asked her if she remembered any local grocery or hardware stores that had closed within a few months or years of Wal-Mart’s opening. She paused for a minute, and then she told me about a man named Irvin “Red” Esry, who owned a small chain of independent grocery stores, Esry’s Grocery, in Brookfield and a few other places in Missouri. She gave me the last phone number she had for him, which was a few years old.
Soon, I was talking with Red himself. He was a little wary at first, but then he very quickly opened up and shared the entire story of his business’ demise in the shadow of Wal-Mart. It was clear to me in the first five minutes that he was a very shrewd businessman and that he knew details about the Wal-Mart deals that I hadn’t even learned through my research. After a few more phone conversations with Red, I knew this was the story we had been looking for.
When I arrived in Hamilton, Missouri, along with cinematographer Kristy Tully, Red and Dee welcomed us immediately into their homes, but we didn’t do any filming that day. We spent hours talking about their family, their business, and driving around to all the old Esry grocery stores. They were cautious at first, but as we spent the hours together, they shared the pain of losing their family business, the anger about what had happened, and the sadness for their family, which had grown up together in the business.
Red Esry was a respected business owner in the community for almost 30 years, but he is also dedicated to his family and his community. He is fiercely patriotic – a veteran of the Korean War, 40-year member of the American Legion, proudly marching in uniform in local parades down Main Street – and dedicated to his community. Even in his retirement, he has taken on the job of building a recycling operation for his town, which didn’t have such a program before Red and a buddy started collecting recyclables from businesses and residents himself. His wife, Dee Esry, holds a PhD in nursing, has been a professor for many years, and is currently working as a nurse at the nearby Veterans Administration home. Their home is filled with photos of their two sons and their families, and photos of their grandchildren.
When Wal-Mart opened in Brookfield, after receiving $300,000 in local government subsidy to build new roads and a water/sewage system, business left Red’s Esry’s Grocery with almost breathtaking speed. The damage to the Esry grocery business was so severe that when the Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in nearby Cameron, Missouri, after receiving $2.1 million in government subsidies, it signaled the beginning of the end for Red and his family. The financial devastation rippled across the entire Esry business, which included two stores in addition to the Cameron and Brookfield stores. Within a year, Red Esry and his family made the most painful decision of their lives. They closed, ending the era of a family-owned business that belonged to Red and his wife, but also belonged to his son, Scott, who had planned to take over the stores.
Throughout this period of time, Red was acutely aware of the local government subsidies being given to Wal-Mart, and he met with members of both Brookfield and Cameron city planning departments to ask for the same treatment. He was denied, repeatedly. Meanwhile, Red continued to offer highly competitive wages to all employees, with a guaranteed full pension and health care package to all full-time employees, even in the face of unbearable pressure from Wal-Mart, which was not offering the same benefits and pay to its employees. He had worked with these people for years, and they were like family to him, and, as he said, “It’s just the right thing to do – to take care of your employees.”
Most importantly, as Red himself claimed over and over during our few weeks’ stay in Missouri, it’s not the competition that’s a problem: “I’m happy to compete – it’s the backbone of American business – but only when it’s on a level playing field. Wal-Mart didn’t play on a level playing field.”
See Also: Wal-Mart's Tax On Us by Greg LeRoy in Alternet.