People in small towns are increasingly seeing their local groceries shuttered, threatening the remaining vitality of their communities. Scott Canon The Kansas City Star
People in small towns are increasingly seeing their local groceries shuttered, threatening the remaining vitality of their communities. Scott Canon The Kansas City Star

Business

Small towns fight to save grocery stores — and their vitality

By Scott Canon

scanon@kcstar.com

August 07, 2017 7:00 AM

Osawatomie, Kan.

A slight echo carries your footfalls as you walk the aisles of what used to be Moon’s grocery store.

Some dry goods remain on the shelves, but most are bare. The coolers stand empty. No cars in the parking lot.

The last grocery store, the final place with a produce section for a city of 4,000, is no more. And may never be again.

“We’re an endangered species,” said Mike Moon, who ran the store for a quarter century. “It’s a scary situation.”

The troubles of running a small-town shop only grew more dire when the Walmart 7 miles away in Paola grew to include a full-blown grocery. Moon tried some things in response. Then he sold the business, while keeping the building, to somebody else who spiffed things up even more. It didn’t work.

It’s a story repeated across small towns in Kansas and rural America broadly. Grocery stores struggle to stay alive, even when there’s not a Walmart nearby.

 
 

The food shops represent a longstanding trend of small towns. Like the farms that marked white settlement in the country’s hinterlands, they’ve become fewer and larger. That consolidation doomed the mom-and-pop grocery the way it did the 300-acre grain farm and the small-herd livestock operation.

As the groceries close, their towns hear a final death knell, or at least the signal that things are only going down in the lonely years ahead. The disappearance of the grocery store — more than an inconvenience to the elderly, the poor and those who don’t drive — speeds the plummet of home values and any other lingering retail activity.

Kansas is a prime example of what’s happening elsewhere. From 2006 to 2010, according to a report on “The Rural Grocery Crisis,” a fifth of the state’s rural groceries shut down. The Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University recorded the loss of 43 of the 213 rural groceries since it started tracking them in 2007.

In Iowa, any town with less than 1,000 people is more likely than not to have lost its only grocery store since the mid-1990s.

Two out of every five Kansas counties include a food desert, an area at least 10 miles from the nearest grocery.

Even the prospect that the local grocery might shutter is enough to make the most vulnerable worry about putting together a week of meals.

Store next door

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In Moran, Kan., a town of about 500 in the southeast part of the state, 67-year-old Jessie Bables need only walk across the street from her rent-subsidized apartment to get eggs, milk, toilet paper and the special of the week at Stub’s Market.

But a for-sale sign outside the store, and all that represents, has her worried. The next closest grocery is 13 miles away. That means Bables must time her trips to Iola around the bus that comes every other Friday or pay somebody to drive her to the store and back.

“I have to pinch my pennies,” she said. “I can’t afford to pay somebody to drive, because that’s money I wouldn’t have for groceries.”

Stub’s isn’t planning to close. Yet.

Owners Shirlene and David Mahurin would like to ease into semi-retirement in the next few years. She’s 61, and he’s 68. They’ve had the place on the market on and off for about five years. Although there’s been some interest, nobody with the wherewithal has emerged. Banks are more than skeptical about financing grocery stores in small towns.

It’s a small-margin business, typically between 2 and 3 percent of sales. The trick is volume. That’s great in a suburban neighborhood that can draw the business of thousands, or tens of thousands, of households.

In a place like little Moran, not so much. So when the Mahurins negotiate deals with the distributors that supply their inventory, they are at a distinct disadvantage.

“The less you have delivered, the more it costs,” said Shirlene Mahurin, who includes butchering among her chores at Stub’s. “It makes it really hard to keep things going.”

At some point, still a few years off, she said, the couple will walk away from the store. But they hope to sell it — both to recoup the money and sweat equity they poured into the business, and so people like Bables won’t be stranded without a grocery.

So a fledgling effort is underway to make the grocery store a cooperative, likely the first to emerge in Kansas since the 1970s. A nonprofit group, Thrive Allen County, that works on health and economic development issues is searching for grants and low-interest loans to drum up purchase money. The Mahurins have listed the store for $148,000.

Organizers have recruited a few dozen people to buy $100 memberships to the co-op. Anybody would still be able to shop at the store, but the hope is that people who’ve invested in the next iteration of Stub’s would be more committed to the store and its role in keeping Moran alive.

Larry Manes is part of the drive, and he’s also looking for other “angel investors” to follow his lead in putting up loans of $10,000 each. That money would be less a promising financial investment, he said, than something bordering on the philanthropic.

“It’s about preserving the community,” he said. “If that store goes, in 10 years we’ll have a population of 100” — a loss of 80 percent of the people living in Moran.

The co-op effort reflects how small-town groceries increasingly can’t expect to stay open merely on market economics, said Ben Alexander, the deputy director of Thrive Allen County.

“The reality is that any project like this is going to need some help,” he said.

Community support

About 13 miles west on U.S. 54, a G&W Foods store is under construction on the site of a former hospital. It’s being built with help from the county government to provide a stand-alone grocery store as an alternative to the Walmart that opened on the outskirts of Iola in 2007 — and ultimately sped the folding of other groceries in town.

Those efforts to prop up remote grocery stores can mean the difference between a small town thriving or withering, said David Procter, the director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at K-State.

“If there’s no grocery store, then the property value goes down. Then the schools struggle because businesses struggle, and you can’t keep commerce in town,” he said. “The grocery store is a barometer, and it’s an attractor of citizens. If you don’t have one, things go downhill.”

Already, he said, rural areas have higher obesity rates — along with the medical problems that follow — than urban areas. Lose the grocery, and Procter said folks will turn to gas station convenience stores and similar merchants. Not only are the prices higher, but a selection of oranges and bananas gets replaced by Fruit Roll-Ups and Bomb Pops.

Pass through Greeley, Kan. — fewer than 300 people left — and folks in the bank aren’t sure if the grocery closed in the late 1970s or early ’80s. It’s about a 15-minute drive each way to Garnett for groceries. In Blue Mound, Bradley’s closed more recently, leaving folks there with a similar trip to stock the kitchen.

In traveling to every town in Kansas, first in the early 2000s and again in the first part of this decade, Marci Penner noted the disappearance of small grocery stores and the void they left.

“If your town wants to sustain itself, access to groceries is key,” said Penner, the director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation that promotes rural culture. “People have to either accept the lack of one, which can be really hard, or they move.”

Increasingly, city councils and county boards step in with various forms of help — providing tax abatements or low-interest loans, or setting up nonprofit operations.

In northeast Kansas, Muscotah, population 125, had only a bait shop and a post office when C.J. Hanson started selling a few grocery items and crafts out of a home. The town saw a possibility, and she got $55,000 in “flat-out” donations that, with the help of some loans, allowed her to build a small metal building.

Now she’s selling groceries and serving lunches and dinners.

“I’m not here to make a million,” she said. “I just want a place for people to gather where they can get some food.”

Meanwhile, a few operators fill in the gaps on their own. In Courtland, Kan., the grocery store closed a decade ago, and people in the town of about 270 were looking at driving about 15 minutes just for a gallon milk.

That gave birth to The Cantina and Jensen Tire and Service. Gary Jensen got a Small Business Administration loan for a walk-in cooler and a few other necessities and began selling groceries. These days, he works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. He delivers groceries to some of his older customers.

His prices are higher than what people might find elsewhere, if they were elsewhere. But customers don’t gripe.

“Several times, every day, people say, ‘Thank you for being here,’ ” Jensen said. “I live about 40 feet from the store. If people need something at night, they just knock on my door, and they know it doesn’t bother me. These are my friends and neighbors.”

Surviving in Mildred

Tiny Mildred, Kan., has just 27 residents. It also has a thriving grocery store, supported by people living in farmhouses that surround it. The Mildred Store had been open for about 100 years. Then it was closed for about two months before Loren and Regena Lance cranked things up three years ago.

The store maintains the feel of an old-time grocery, with everything short of a pickle barrel. It’s known around Allen and Anderson counties and beyond for its deli counter, and Loren Lance anchors country music sessions that draw 170 people into a side room every third Saturday night of the month.

“We don’t draw a paycheck out of the grocery store. If we did, we’d probably fail,” Loren Lance said. “We get our pop from Walmart when it’s on sale. … We charge a little more. … But this thing is important to the people in the area.”

Those who run the surviving stores talk about the many difficulties of buying at small scale. They’re forced to charge higher prices and then see customers load up on supplies on trips to larger towns, looking local only when they find themselves short of a staple here and there.

Procter, who tracks the issue at K-State, said the temptation for out-of-town bargains is inescapable. But he thinks the local buy can still be smarter.

“So you save a few pennies on that gallon of milk, but then when the store closes, you lose thousands on the value of your house,” he said.

Still, he sees local governments as increasingly important to keeping their groceries going.

“Public dollars are going to be part of it,” he said. “It’s just getting too hard in some places to do it any other way.”

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon

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