The 2002 grand opening of Pico Rivera's Wal-Mart had all the hallmarks of a big event in a small town: The mayor, wielding oversized scissors, cuts a ribbon; the excited crowd streams through a balloon arch into the shining anchor of a new shopping center.
Thirteen years later, that mayor, Gregory Salcido, is back at the helm of the working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County. But the shine is off the Wal-Mart, which closed abruptly April 13 because of what the corporation described as serious plumbing problems.
"It's a severe blow to our community, certainly, with the local economy, the homes and families, in terms of those people that were counting on those paychecks," Salcido said.
With 530 workers, the Wal-Mart store is the city's second-biggest employer, topped only by the El Rancho Unified School District. Pico Rivera's nearly 64,000 residents have a median household income of almost $57,000, about average for the county.
Salcido estimated that Pico Rivera receives about $1.4 million a year in tax revenue from the retailer, potentially 10% of the city's sales tax revenue. City officials, he said, are trying to figure out how to deal with the lost revenue if the store remains closed for at least six months, as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has announced.
A union representing a group of Wal-Mart employees has rejected the explanation by Wal-Mart Stores, alleging in a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board that the closure was intended to punish workers who took part in the first strike against the retail giant in 2012 and have aggressively campaigned for higher wages.
The complaint contends that the Bentonville, Ark., corporation closed four other stores — two in Texas, and one each in Florida and Oklahoma — on April 13, citing similar plumbing issues to mask the retaliatory move against the Pico Rivera workers, many of whom received only hours of notice. Wal-Mart has denied those allegations and said some workers will be offered transfers to other stores.
The Wal-Mart was built on the grounds of two prior Pico Rivera employment giants.
From 1957 to 1980, the intersection of Washington and Rosemead boulevards was home to the Ford Motor Co. Los Angeles assembly plant, where the Ford Falcon, the company's first compact car, and the Thunderbird were built.
The plant fell victim to the declining demand for big cars, Ford said at the time. It employed 1,670 people.
In its place came Northrop Grumman Corp. In 1982, the aerospace and technology giant opened its largest top-secret military plant, which had no windows and required trucks to make deliveries in the middle of the night. At its height, the plant employed more than 12,000 people and was known for developing the B-2 stealth bomber.
The Los Angeles aerospace industry declined, and the plant closed in 1999. By the end, it had 2,000 workers.
The city then helped develop a portion of the site into the Pico Rivera Towne Center, a 630,000-square-foot open-air shopping center.
When Wal-Mart arrived, the low prices were an immediate hit in the largely Latino town. It was open 24 hours; the aisles were often jammed.
The store was renovated in 2007 to become a Wal-Mart Supercenter that sold groceries and underwent further remodeling in 2014.
But in recent years, most Yelp reviews of the Pico Rivera location were negative. Reviewers complained about long checkout lines and poor customer service. Some called the store unkempt and even dirty.
On Wednesday afternoon, confused customers drove past the Wal-Mart, slowing down just long enough to squint at the small paper signs announcing the store's closing before speeding away. The store's pharmacy, which is accessible through a side door, remained open for a temporary transition. Inside, empty metal shelves blocked the rest of the store from view.
As Cynthia Alvarado left the pharmacy, she called out a goodbye to staffers, some of whom replied that they'd miss her.
The 55-year-old Montebello resident said she frequented the Pico Rivera store several times a week, even though the Rosemead location was closer to home.
"What I loved the best here was the people — they were very good people," Alvarado said. "Especially the pharmacy. They were really good to the customers and went out of their way to help people."
Jenny Mills, a nine-year Pico Rivera Wal-Mart employee, lives in her car with her husband and their cat in the parking lot of her former store. The couple lost their apartment in Monterey Park about a year ago when the rent was raised and they couldn't make payments.
She's now part of the National Labor Relations Board filing and said she hopes to get her job back.
The Pico Rivera Towne Center has become an "economic engine" for the city in terms of retail, Salcido said. Other tenants in the center include Lowe's, Marshalls, PetSmart and Panera Bread.
But the loss of the Wal-Mart store, even temporarily, Salcido said, "is significant, no doubt about it."