Mayor saves the day as Walmart grandly reopens store along Panama Lane

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May 26—For all the months of work that went into renovating the Walmart Supercenter along Panama Lane next to Highway 99, one could have gotten the impression Friday that all might have been for naught but for the ceremonial powers vested in Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh.

All had gone smoothly during the first part of the celebration as employees of Walmart store number 1574 milled about the parking lot in bright blue vests and customers took pictures with visiting product mascots Chester Cheetah, Buzz the Honey Nut Cheerios bee and Osito the Bimbo bear.

Store associate Monica Reyes sang the national anthem while one patriotic customer single-handedly steered a shopping cart through the assembled crowd while keeping the other hand on his heart as he lip-synced lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Store manager Maria Vorjas took the Pepsi-bedecked stage to welcome the audience and encourage everyone to enjoy the remodeled electronics section, expanded parking lot and improved pickup service for online orders.

Nary a glitch surfaced during a series of appearances by representatives of locally elected legislators. Goh herself kept things moving along by accepting the microphone to thank store employees for helping the community live better, adding, "It is indeed a grand day!" and presenting one of at least four official certificates of recognition given out Friday before 10 a.m.

Next came oversize checks of $1,000 or more to seven local nonprofits, followed by a brief pep rally for employees ("Who's No. 1?" called out a supervisor. "Fifteen seventy-four!" his crew shouted back.)

Right about then things came to a standstill. With dozens of employees lined up behind, a red ribbon was stretched out in front of the Pepsi stage — but where were the giant scissors?

That's when the mayor sprang into action.

"I'll be right back," Goh told a reporter as she hurried away from the crowd and into the parking lot. In her absence, someone brought out a cheerfully decorated but apparently ineffectual giant scissors, which were quickly set aside.

A nervous Walmart supervisor whose bright pink shirt stood out from the crowd shouted for the manager on stage to "keep talking" into the mic. But the message didn't get through and the event itself seemed to teeter on disappointment. Would the ribbon ever be cut?

Minutes passed slowly until the mayor returned from her vehicle and emerged triumphantly — not running, it should be noted — with almost comically large, crimson-handled scissors that made short work of the taut ribbon.

A regular shopper at the Walmart, Samantha Lopez, who lives behind the Lowes store next door, said she found the remodel a little confusing because so much merchandise had been moved around but that she liked how it turned out.

Mainly, Lopez said, she liked that Walmart had added a number of self-checkout lanes in front of the store.

"It used to be just a section," she said, "but now it's pretty much taken over the cashiering." (To be fair, checkout areas with manned registers remain available inside the store, even as the self-checkout area has clearly expanded.)

One question went unanswered following Friday's ceremonial grand reopening: Where was the new mural?

Commissioned to Los Angeles-based muralist Daniel Smith, the artwork had been featured in a Walmart news release previewing Friday's event. It featured four women of differing ages and races gazing toward the horizon, one carrying produce and wearing an apron bearing the name Bakersfield, as they stood in front of oilfield pumping units.

A store employee directed a reporter to the store's eastern entrance, where sure enough, the mural greeted shoppers as they filed in.

"It's very pretty," shopper and nearby resident Rosa Soto said in Spanish. She noted it does seem to capture Bakersfield with its visual representations of oil and agriculture.

Soto liked the expanded self-checkout area, too, just as she praised the rest of the store.

"You get out faster," she said.