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Rural grocery stores fade, but some towns fight back

Rural grocery stores are being reinvented by town councils, coops, even high school students. When

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High school student Melissa McMullin hands Jim Crowder (center) his groceries at The Bulldog Express, the only grocery store in Leeton, Mo. To keep the store open, the local high school agreed to run it with help from students in its entrepreneur and agriculture classes.

Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star/Newscom/File

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Bare-armed and tattooed, Howard Baggs stands outside the little grocery store he manages here, grilling pork chops and bratwurst. A haze of blue smoke drifts out over the street and carries the aroma of sizzling meat through the two-block downtown.

Washburn Community Foods here in central Illinois is owned by hundreds of local townspeople who came together to buy the store after it closed in 2000. Midday cookouts are part of its never-ending effort to attract customers – and stay in business.

"It's not thriving by any means," says Mr. Baggs, a friendly, powerfully built man who doubles as the store's meat cutter. "But it's hanging on."

Across rural America, small-town grocery stores are shutting their doors in the face of little population growth and rising competition from big suburban chains. This loss threatens the viability of struggling downtowns and leaves many of rural America's poor and seniors in what the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls "food deserts" – households with no transportation and more than a mile from a supermarket. But some small towns are fighting back in sometimes innovative ways to keep their grocery store open. They say it is too important to a town to let it simply disappear.

"Without a store, it's hard to keep a school, and without a school, it's hard to keep a town," says Charles Kennell, president of Washburn Community Foods and a local farmer. "It sort of just dries up."

It's no surprise that small-town groceries are in trouble. Rural America is not keeping up with urban population growth and, in many places, is shrinking outright. In 1960, 30 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, the Census Bureau found. By 2010, only 16 percent did.

Even where the local population is stable, small-town stores are losing business to large retailers that are moving into rural areas. Meanwhile, rural workers often commute long distances to their jobs, usually to cities and larger towns where they can shop before driving home.

In Kansas, 87 out of 213 rural groceries have closed since 2007, according to a Kansas State University study. An Iowa State University study says that Iowa lost more than half its grocery stores between 1976 and 2000, many of them in small towns. In a 2009 report, the USDA found that more than 1 million rural households lived in food deserts.

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Last fall the grocery store in Golden, Ill., closed. The town has tried but failed to attract another. Mayor Roger Flesner e-mailed grocery chains in Quincy, a city 30 miles away, suggesting that they open a store in his town. None wrote back.

This same sense of urgency has led some towns to seek alternatives to the independently owned grocery store. When the grocery in Onaga, Kan., burned last year, the owner chose not to rebuild, so the town built a new store itself. It found a grocer in Kansas City who was willing to move in and, in exchange for the new building, keep the store open for at least 20 years. The building, now being built, will cost local taxpayers $375,000, but town clerk Pam Unruh says the money is well spent.

"City councils and city governments are going to have to step up to the plate and make some concessions to keep economic development on track," she says.

One of the more unusual experiments is under way in Leeton, Mo., where the local high school runs the town's only grocery store.

The idea came up three years ago, when local community leaders, including school officials, were casting about for ways to reinvigorate the downtown. "We weren't sure it would go," says Marijayne Manley, the school's business and marketing instructor. "None of us had any experience."

Still, she and another teacher agreed to oversee the business. The local bank offered use of an old building. Students from entrepreneurship and agriculture classes began running the store as part of their course work, washing windows, stocking shelves, placing orders, and doing other jobs. (A few also work after school for pay.) The Bulldog Express, named after the school's mascot, does only a modest amount of business, but Ms. Manley says real-world responsibility teaches students lessons they can't learn from books.

More typically, rural communities resort to a form of collective ownership to keep the local grocery in business. One of the more successful ones is in Walsh, an eastern Colorado town of about 600. After the local grocery store closed five years ago, townspeople bought it. They installed better coolers, poured a new sidewalk, and made other improvements. "It's thriving," says Richard Mills, a founder and a past president of the store's board of directors. "It's the hub of activity."

To survive, local groceries need broad community support and a few individuals determined to see the effort through, says David Procter, director of Kansas State's Center for Engagement and Community Development. "I just don't know if it's possible for every community to have a grocery store," he says.

The community-owned store here in Washburn, a town of 1,155, started up in a burst of enthusiasm. Hundreds of towns-people bought shares at $50 apiece, raising about $100,000. "Everyone jumped on the bandwagon," says Mr. Kennell.

Since then the store has faced many challenges. Five years ago, it lost its supplier and had to scramble to find a new one. A Wal-Mart opened in a town 17 miles away, and business fell 20 percent. The building needed a new roof, prompting a new round of fundraising. More than once it looked as if the store might close.

"We had some tough years," admits Kennell. "But now we're learning."

He and others involved with the store are constantly trying to think of new ways to attract customers. They watch closely what's advertised on television; people will be sure to ask for it.

"If they want a certain product, we'll try to get it," says Melody Moss, the assistant manager and cash-ier. Fresh meat has been the store's biggest draw. A hot dish in the deli has brought in lunchtime customers. And the cookouts have proved popular; the store recently expanded them to twice a week.

With about 200 customers a day and annual sales of a little more than $1 million, Washburn Community Foods may never be able to do more than just hang on. But for people like Howard Long, a retired welder, that's a lot.

"It's pretty handy for senior citizens and other people in town," says Mr. Long as he leaves the store with prune juice and a roast for Sunday dinner. "It's got everything a fellow would want in groceries."

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