WALLA WALLA — Not even Bi-Mart officials would have imagined when they closed their Eastgate location in 2003 that more than a decade later they’d be moving back into the building.
But the new store to open this spring at 598 N. Wilbur Ave. isn’t exactly the Bi-Mart customers have come to know.
The membership retailer will debut a store that will apply all the operational philosophies and efficiencies that have built a Bi-Mart following into a store that otherwise is very different, said Don Leber, Bi-Mart advertising director.
Cascade Farm and Outdoor is a new separate division, he said. The store will carry many of the departments of a typical Bi-Mart — automotive, sporting goods, pets. But its main focus is centered around agriculture, Leber said.
The 40,000-square-foot store will carry supplies and equipment to meet the needs of ranchers, farmers, outdoor enthusiasts and more. Everything from Western wear to fencing, Leber said.
Unlike Bi-Mart, it will not be membership-based.
Earlier this week, the company held a job fair at the Walla Walla WorkSource office to recruit the 40 to 50 employees expected to staff the company’s flagship store. Leber said most of those jobs will be full time and offer benefits.
The new operation comes as Eugene-based Bi-Mart approaches its 60th anniversary next year.
“We’ve talked about this a long time and think it really fits some of our current customers and potential,” Leber said.
Walla Walla was chosen as the first site for the expansion concept because the company had the space here.
Bi-Mart’s roots in the community go back to 1978, when the company opened at 1649 Plaza Way. It expanded in spring 2001 with the second store in Eastgate. But just two years later that site closed under what was described by Marty Smith, Bi-Mart’s then-president, as a “slow economy and increased competition in the marketplace.”
In an interview at the time, Leber characterized that store’s opening as a misjudgment.
“We thought there would be a higher sales volume,” he said then. “It just didn’t prove to be the case.”
In the 10 years since, no other permanent tenants have stepped forward. That left Bi-Mart with an available property for the debut of its new division.
Cascade is designed to meet the demand officials have heard from customers over time.
“For years we’ve been asked by customers to broaden our merchandise mix, especially in rural markets where shopping options are limited,” said Bi-Mart President Rich Truett in the official release.
But to offer some of the items required branching off from Bi-Mart, which as a “discount retailer” would have precluded certain products from being purchased and sold in stores.
“We felt that to do the concept of a farm store right, it would need to be a separate entity,” Truett said.
Although Walla Walla is a rural community, it has no shortage of farm equipment retail offerings. However the new spot will add retail at a time when 40,000-square-foot stores aren’t popping up en masse.
“We believe we’ve got good systems in place to be a good retailer,” Leber said. “Whether it’s for the home or a small ranch or a larger ranch or lifestyle.”
The first phase of work at the property is under way with heating and cooling work, plus cleaning and painting inside and reconfiguring doorways. Once done, work will begin at store fixtures and merchandising, Leber said.
Cascade is not designed to replace Bi-Mart, he emphasized. In fact, that company continues to grow with its 75th store opening slated this year in Sweet Home, Ore.
Although other future sites have not yet been designated for Cascade Farm and Outdoor, the goal is to open a few stores each year. Others are expected in 2014, Leber said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.