ALBANY, Ga. -- Eating a piece of celebratory cake, Ward I City Commissioner Jon Howard was almost speechless when asked how he felt about the opening of the new East Albany Walmart.
"It's long overdue and very well-received," Howard said.
For Howard, and many other East Albany residents, the ribbon-cutting and grand opening Wednesday of the sprawling new store off Cordele Road is more than just a new store in a part of town where commercial growth has largely been stagnant. It's emotional.
More than 10 years ago, mere feet from where Howard was eating his cake, one of the commissioner's high school classmates was beaten to death in what was, at the time, a mobile home park with a seedy reputation for drugs, poverty and prostitution.
"It's more than just a new store. This is something positive that is coming out of an area that was plagued with crime and prostitution," Howard said. "It's good riddance and a good day for this town."
The opening of the store, needless to say, is a boon for Albany and Dougherty County, but it's an especially poignant moment for retail-starved East Albany.
"Finally," shopper Thelma Jenkins, an eastside resident, said. "This is just great."
The store opening was orchestrated by more than 1,000 Walmart associates, city and county officials and local business and economic development personnel, and was nearly two decades in the making.
Marlene Hunter, the regional head of Wal-Mart Stores, said the company is proud to be able to make an impact during the recession in a community like East Albany.
"Wal-Mart has made a commitment to this community, and we're proud to be able to put people to work, especially in these times," Hunter said.
For some, the fact that a community and its leaders could get so excited about the opening of one retail store may seem a little silly, but for those in East Albany, it's a quality-of-life bump that is hard to overstate.
Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard emphasized that notion when he spoke to the patrons and officials Wednesday, saying that the store has reinvigorated East Albany in a meaningful way.
"Because of the enthusiasm of your home office, your regional office, 300 folks have jobs today that didn't have a job six weeks ago," Sinyard said. "One day we're going to talk about Albany -- not east and west Albany -- and it's getting there. It's bigger than just a Walmart. Andy (Carter, the new store manager), you guys have brought a new attitude, a new perception and a new energy; you have reignited folks."
While the bricks, mortar and concrete on the new site are now firmly in place, the future of store No. 5797 wasn't always so firmly established.
It was just a year or two ago that the entire project was hanging by a thread as Wal-Mart, coping with a virulent economic recession, made the decision to slash the number of stores it planned to open.
That tense period was recounted by Albany Mayor Willie Adams Wednesday morning.
"I can remember when they printed in the Wall Street Journal during the hard economic times that Wal-Mart was going to cut back on the number of stores they were going to build; we thought 'man, there goes our store,' because Albany was the last to be considered," Adams said. "But Albany survived."
Now, with the store open, local government officials are hoping that it spurs additional economic interest in the eastern portion of Albany and Dougherty County.
One direct impact will be on the Tax Allocation District. This voter-approved area includes most of the downtown corridor and extends in a narrow area along Oglethorpe Boulevard into East Albany, where the Walmart store serves as its anchor.
Any increase in property values by the 1,000 or so properties within the TAD -- Walmart included-- will go to a pot of funds that will be used to repair and improve the downtown area and portions of East Albany.
Sales taxes will also get a welcome rise thanks to the store, giving both city and county coffers a bump not seen since Wal-Mart left the corporate city limits more than a decade ago for Lee County.