BENNINGTON — More than 100 residents waited at the doors of the new Walmart on Monday morning for the store's grand opening celebration.
The new Supercenter has more than double the square footage — and will employ more than twice as many associates — as the old store. "It's been 21 years in the making, but it's finally here," said store manager B.J. Clay.
The grand opening began at 7:30 a.m. with a flag raising ceremony, featuring officers of the Bennington Police Department and Boy Scout Troop 353, the singing of the national anthem, and a prayer to dedicate the new store.
BPD Chief Paul Doucette reminisced on when the old Walmart building had instead housed a Woolworth's, joking that most of his employees didn't remember that, as they hadn't yet been born when he graduated from high school. "So, I'm a little older, and a little bit wiser, and the wise part of me says our community needs this store," he said.
"In four days we will mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Irene," he said, "and as the chief of police and public safety director, I thought that this was a fantastic week to open this new store. Five years ago, when Hurricane Irene blew into Bennington, and left people shocked and devastated, who was one of the first people to contact me, to stand up and say, 'Chief, what can we do to help?' Walmart." He said the Raymond, N.H., distribution center had sent a tractor trailer seven hours to deliver bottled water to Bennington in the aftermath of the storm. A couple days later when they ran out of water, he said, Walmart sent another truck. He said later the store even sent cleaning supplies.
"We never got a bill," he said, "I hope I don't get one after this."
Instead of a bill, the store presented Doucette with a check for $2,000, made out to the BPD. The store also gave out $1,000 to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, $1,000 to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and $2,500 to the Bennington County Sheriff's Department.
Lloyd Dean, on behalf of Sheriff Chad Schmidt and the rest of the department, thanked the store for the donation, which Dean said would go towards the department's new K9 program. "What began several months ago as a fundraising project, through Sgt. (Joel) Howard's efforts, ends today with this generous donation," he said, "which will help pay for the training of Milly here, and pay for the equipment needed to operate the K9 program."
Howard said that after Milly completes an eight-week program in January, she will have completed training for drugs and tracking.
Also speaking was Al Felden, a longtime friend of Walmart founder Sam Walton. "Sam always loved this area, and always said to me, 'Why can't you get a store up here in Vermont?' I used to come up here and ski, for about 40 years, and he said, 'Stop skiing a little and get us a store!' Well, we finally got you that store Sam, and he would be so proud of what you have here today, just a magnificent building," Felden said, before commenting on the old store, which was among the smallest Walmarts in the country, "I always said, these folks in Vermont have done so much with so little, they'll do anything with almost nothing. Well, now you really have something here, and it's just wonderful."
After the ceremony was complete, residents rushed into the store to see the inside for the first time. Moving forward, it will be open 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. The new store will employ up to 230 full- and part-time associates.
The celebration continues this weekend. On Saturday, August 26, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, August 27, from noon to 4 p.m. local residents are invited to the store's "Big Family Welcome," where they will be able to meet Clay and enjoy family activities and free food samples while supplies last.
— Derek Carson can be reached for comment at 802-447-7567, ext. 122.