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More than a hundred people gather in the parking lot of the new Walmart Neighborhood Market in Helena to await the store's grand opening on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013. (Martin J. Reed / mreed@al.com)

HELENA, Alabama -- At just after 7 this morning, still around 30 minutes until the grand opening ceremony started, the new Walmart Neighborhood Market in Helena had customers ready to begin their shopping.

"You got another one, there's another customer," store manager Chad Armstrong said, noting the anticipation of the opening. "We did have some customers try to get into the building last night."

With more than a hundred people, many of them Walmart staff, gathered in the parking lot as they listened to a few speeches and watched the presentation of Walmart Foundation Community Grants to various local organizations, Helena's newest grocery store opened this morning.

"We're ready to roll," Armstrong said in an interview. "We have put some blood, sweat and tears in the store in the last few days."

The roughly 49,000-square-foot building that formerly housed the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Highway 17 had been vacant for a few years. Inside the brightly lit store this morning, shelves were stocked, the floors shined and workers buzzed around ready to get started.

"It was the eagerness of the community that motivated our associates to build this store," Armstrong told the crowd.

Customers visiting the grand opening were treated to some while-supplies-last specials including 88-cent Coke 2 liters, Woodbridge 1.5-liter wines for .97 and suitcases of Bud, Miller and Coors for .97.

The opening generated excitement among many of those standing outside awaiting the doors to open as a few rain clouds drifted overhead and delivered a brief light shower.

Ann Tyler of Helena refrained from purchasing groceries over the weekend in anticipation of the new store opening. "I'm buying all my groceries today," she said.

"I think it will give us more choices and I think it's good for the community to grow," Tyler said as she waited for the store to open. "It's going to attract more businesses" and offer additional employment in the city.

She appreciates the added convenience of having another grocery store in Helena instead of relying on the Publix across the street. "I like that it's open 24 hours. A lot of times you have things going on. ... You have more options now and better prices. I'm so excited about it," she said.

Rebecca Powell, a customer retail manager for Kraft Foods, said the Walmart Neighborhood Markets are increasing in the region. "In Atlanta, we've opened, like, seven" in the last year or year and a half, she said, noting one debuted last week and another is opening next week.

"It's a great business model and that's really what Walmart is going after," Powell said.

Helena Mayor Mark Hall said getting a new grocery store in town had been a priority for the last couple of years starting with the previous administration. "So the first thing we did when we got into office was start calling the Walmart people," Hall said.

He expects more businesses to fill the shopping center and come to the city. "This is kind of a milestone for Helena. We have been lacking that retail base," he said.

John Tow, Walmart's Alabama regional general manager, told the crowd the store represents quality. "This team has done a phenomenal job. As far as a retailer, you're going to see a Picasso in there. It's a masterpiece," he said.

The ceremony included the presentation of grants including ,500 for Boy Scouts of America's Troop 2 in Helena, ,000 for Friends of Helena Schools, ,000 for the Helena High School Band Boosters, ,500 for Helena Intermediate School and ,000 each for the Helena Police Explorers and the Helena Public Library.

Walmart employees celebrate the opening of the new Neighborhood Market in Helena on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013.
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