A small grocery store anchors one end of Main Street in the town the Center for Rural Affairs calls home. If you live in a rural community, you understand that our grocery store is arguably one of the most important businesses in town.
The store means more than just ready access to food. Rural grocery stores are small businesses, providing jobs and generating tax revenue that support the community. Without a local store, the payroll and tax revenue that our food purchases generate go elsewhere. When you have to leave town to buy groceries, it’s easier to pick up hardware, fill prescriptions and buy clothes at the same time. Thus, the loss of a grocery store affects other businesses in a town as well.
Having a grocery store also helps attract new residents to a town. Similar to a school, post office, restaurant and churches, a grocery store makes a community a more attractive place to live. Grocery stores can also be social places where you run into neighbors in the produce aisle, introduce yourself to someone new in town, or catch up on local news with the cashier.
Not all small towns are as lucky as we are, and without a local grocery store, residents miss out on these benefits. The lack of a grocery store also means residents have less access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, and the elderly and others without reliable transportation buy their food at convenience stores with more limited selections or go for longer periods of time between visits to the store.
An increasing number of creative solutions are emerging to meet these challenges. The best examples begin within the community and help residents identify a solution that works for their own community. Below we highlight several models that some of these communities are using to keep the grocery store open in their town.
When city leaders in Stapleton, Nebraska, found that 95 percent of respondents to a survey wanted a grocery store in town, a local resident stepped up to the challenge. With the help of two local investors, the plan for a new store was underway. Many rural grocery stores are already owned by local business people who understand the importance of their store to the community. Communities that are losing a store owned by an outside investor or regional chain should look inward for someone from the community willing to operate the store.
A half hour was too far to drive to buy groceries for residents of Walsh, Colorado, so this town of 723 people decided to solve the problem themselves. Over 300 of them pooled their money to re-open the grocery store. A $160,000 interest-free loan helped restock the shelves, and they were in business. One secret to their success is community engagement – residents know that the success of this cooperative venture depends on residents spending their grocery money in Walsh, and the store can be more responsive to the needs of the community because its members are co-owners.
About 10 years ago, the Nebraska Sandhills community of Arthur, Nebraska, lost their grocery store. With residents forced to drive 40 miles for groceries and some elderly residents relying on neighbors for delivery, community leaders decided to act. In cooperation with an extracurricular entrepreneurial business development program with high school students, eight students undertook market research, identified support, rented a building, and, by the end of the year, opened the Wolf Den grocery store (the school mascot is a wolf). The grocery store in this town of just 144 people remains open to this day.
Next month we will highlight several challenges rural grocery stores face and discuss ways to overcome those challenges.