Nearly five months after six employees were killed in a shooting in the store’s break room, a renovated Walmart in Chesapeake reopened Wednesday morning.
The store includes a permanent outdoor memorial with six stone benches arranged in a seating area and a metal plaque in commemoration of the workers who were shot to death.
Store manager Alycia Mixon said she hoped the space would be used by employees, their families and the community to gather, reflect and honor the victims.
“We’re really grateful that we were able to do something in their memory,” Mixon said.
Shortly before reopening, Walmart officials and Chesapeake Mayor Rick West held a ceremony outside the store. Dozens of Walmart employees, their families and community members listened to the speeches. Some donned blue T-shirts emblazoned with the Walmart logo, the names of the victims and the words “Gone but not forgotten.”
Several speakers got emotional as they talked about the weeks and months following the shooting. After he heard about the shooting, Walmart regional operations coordinator Colt Benson jumped in his car and drove from New York to the Chesapeake store off Battlefield Boulevard. Holding back tears, he said he fell in love with all the store employees, and shouted out to several in the crowd who assisted him.
“It was nice being part of this and seeing everyone come in every day and share hugs and smiles and do everything we can to help each other,” Benson said.
Cedric Clark, Walmart executive vice president of store operations, said he was impressed with the humanity displayed by the workers, and recited the names of the six victims in his speech.
“Let’s just keep this transparent: The beautifulness of this is fear and pain is actually a prerequisite in life, but it should never win,” Clark said.
West said he was convinced of the community’s strength when, during a short tour, he met a store employee, Linda Tunstal-Jackson, who had worked there since the store opened decades ago.
“When we met her and talked to her and saw that smile on her face and that inner strength in her eyes, I knew that this store would be all right,” West said. “I knew these associates would be all right.”
After the ceremony, a couple dozen shoppers lined up outside one of the two main entrances. Chesapeake resident Cynthia Whitehurst was near the front of the line. Whitehurst said she missed her Walmart, and she was also there to honor the shooting victims.
“It was my neighborhood, my family and my people,” Whitehurst said.
Mixon said it was great to be back with her co-workers. Around 60% of employees from before the shooting chose to return, but a Walmart spokesperson noted several others transferred to other stores.
After the shooting, Mixon said her main priority was listening to her employees and making sure they had input in the store redesign process.
“Each day has been different, right?” Mixon said. “So, it is one of those times where we all have to be honest with each other. But the great thing about it is that here I’ve always embraced every associate and all their differences.”
Outside construction began in February, Mixon said, and employees reentered the building in March.
She said the biggest challenge in reopening was understanding that the shooting affected each employee differently — from those who knew the victims to the newer workers. So, she needed to make sure each of her roughly 300 employees had their needs met.
On Tuesday, near one of the main entrances, workers with The Graphics Shop in Chesapeake put the finishing touches on a large colorful mural. The work of local artist Charlie Frances features a great blue heron in flight over the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge.
The revamped store includes a new layout with updated signs and several new shopping features. At several points around the store, interactive mock-ups of bedrooms, kitchens and other rooms reminiscent of an Ikea showroom give customers decorating ideas using Walmart products.
Other new additions include a large beverage and snack section at the front of the store, an expanded beer and wine selection in the grocery department, expanded checkout areas, digital screens throughout the store, and more products from brands like Steve Madden and Free Assembly.
While closed during the redesign, Walmart paid for the wages of affected employees and funeral, travel and other expenses for the families of the victims.
The community held vigils for the victims and set up memorials in the store parking lot after a Walmart manager killed six co-workers Nov. 22 after opening fire in the breakroom during a night shift meeting.
Following the shooting, three employees and the family of one of the victims filed lawsuits against the company. Each suit alleges that Walmart had known about troubling behavior from gunman Andre Bing before the shooting and did not act. Bing killed himself in the breakroom after shooting his co-workers, police said.
In December, Walmart lawyers, seeking to dismiss the cases, said Virginia law prevents employees from seeking personal injury claims when harmed on the job by another employee and instead must submit workers’ compensation complaints. In response, one now former employee refiled her lawsuit and two others voluntarily dismissed their cases, though they can also refile.
Gregory Sandler, a lawyer representing the estate of victim Randall Blevins, said in an statement the money spent on the ceremony, memorial and nonprofit donations were attempts by Walmart to paint itself as caring while it fights in court to avoid paying the victim’s family. Lawyers for Blevins withdrew their lawsuit in March and plan to refile it to better address the defenses argued by Walmart lawyers, Sandler said.
Walmart has donated $1 million to the United Way of South Hampton Roads’ Hope & Healing Fund, plus thousands more to other area organizations.
“Even if a fraction of this money could have been committed to the families of the deceased, it would help them with their personal loss,” Sandler said.
Trevor Metcalfe, 757-222-5345, firstname.lastname@example.org