OXFORD — At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, National Guardsmen held the American flag at attention while a singer delivered the national anthem; the local high school’s mascot, marching band and cheerleading squad performed in the parking lot; an emcee looped a musical crescendo through a PA system and called out the store’s managers, who rushed through a row of high-fives to a small stage; and hundreds of shoppers formed a line outside that snaked from the front doors to the back of the 136,000-square-foot new Sam’s Club.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it's been a long time," Mayor Leon Smith told shoppers. “I pulled up this morning and I said, 'Lord, what a crowd.’”
Smith admitted that he often worried the membership-only, buy-in-bulk retailer would never open its doors in Oxford.
City leaders announced plans for a Sam’s Club in 2008, but officials from Wal-Mart, which owns Sam’s Club, were concerned about the condition of the site. The city spent at least $2.6 million on grading work at the location.
A Wal-Mart spokesman told The Star in 2012 that company officials held off on the site waiting for conditions in the economy to improve. Sam’s Club locations depend heavily on small businesses, he said, which were greatly affected by the 2008 recession.
The project was further delayed as the city worked toward an agreement with the Muskogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma concerning a Native American mound disturbed near the Oxford Exchange. Soil used from that site became the fill dirt for the Sam’s Club.
The Muscogee Creeks and the city reached an agreement in 2011 and ceremonial stones from the mound were moved to the site of Oxford’s planned sports complex nearby.
But on Thursday, the shoppers were more concerned with deals inside the store than the ground under it.
Anniston resident Luther Owen stood in the line holding his 3-year-old granddaughter, Della Armstrong. He said the store opening means he’ll no longer have to drive to Birmingham or Douglasville, Ga. — previously the nearest Sam’s Club locations.
When asked about the turnout for Thursday’s grand opening, Owen laughed.
“We almost turned around and went back,” he said.
Had he left, though, he would have missed the handful of vendors pitching their products among floor displays and cavernous aisles of pallets.
Jim Berdeaux of Wetumpka handed out spoonfuls of his signature sauces. The recipes came from his grandfather, who served as chef of the Pickwick Cafe in Montgomery, which operated from 1900 to 1949, he said.
Salesmen wearing head-set microphones cooked grilled-cheese sandwiches and told customers about Chef Shamy Gourmet Food’s butter, with flavors such as French onion.
Looking over the shoppers Monday, Tarah Pounders, manager of the new location, said the grand opening was perfect.
“The community outreach has been incredible,” she said.
Pounders declined to give an estimate of the crowd’s size, but she said the location broke a membership signup record for new stores.