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Could Bringing Back A Grocery Store Revitalize A Community?

By Staff | Jun 9, 2011

GRAETTINGER How important is a local supermarket to the quality of life in small, rural locales dotting the Iowa countryside? Pretty important, if you ask some folks in Graettinger. After several months without a local grocery store, the Graettinger Economic Development Committee and River Valley Telecommunications Coop got together to reopen the local grocery store, restock the shelves and make grocery items conveniently available to the city’s residents once again. Due to an incredible amount of community pride, the Graettinger Market opened in January 2007.

The store had various owners and went by different names over the years, most recently known as J’s Market. In September of 2006 the facility closed its doors, leaving only a convenience store to meet the grocery needs of local residents.

“We were missing it for several months,” said Graettinger Mayor Kevin Hanson, “I know I missed it.” People were traveling out of town to shop for groceries, spending their money in places other than Graettinger.

After fielding requests to do something about the lack of a grocery store in the town, the Committee began investigating what opening a new store would entail. “There was a balance on a loan to pay and some equipment was left in the empty building,” said Committee member Ivan Dalen. “Then some vendors expressed interest, and that led to meetings and then eventually to opening the Graettinger Market.”

A loan was procured through the River Valley Telecommunications Coop’s revolving loan fund targeted toward helping better communities it serves. Dalen, who is General Manager at the Coop, said the committee received the loan to reopen the store and stock it full of product once again. There is a grant in the mix as well.

“It’s an honor for River Valley to have the revolving loan fund to help out,” Dalen said, “…and to maintain stability of employment for people living and working in the community.” The Coop has made similar loans for more than a dozen projects through the fund.

The grocery store is also important to the city in ways besides providing a needed service to residents. It improves the economic stability of the downtown area. “We need to make it a viable business on main street,” Dalen said. “Besides the Post Office and a bank, there are only a few other businesses downtown Graettinger. It’s a viable retail store. The elderly need it; we all need it. It’s a must.” “It’s a big part of our business downtown,” Mayor Hanson added. “You don’t have to travel 15 to 30 miles to purchase groceries anymore, especially with these gas prices. It saves time, money and fuel, and it’s very convenient.”

There is progress to report since the store opened. For instance, there are two full-time and two part-time employees, an increase over the three who worked at J’s Market prior to the closing. “They are really hard workers,” Dalen noted. “They go above and beyond to accommodate the customers and to help it remain a viable business.”

A circular is printed about every month. Mailings have been done and coupons created with the aim of drawing customers to the store. These measures have been somewhat successful, Dalen said, but getting shoppers to change their habits is still a challenge. “A lot of people still use it as a convenience store, and we cannot operate that way,” Dalen explained. “We need to increase foot traffic. It’s been hard trying to get people to change their buying habits. But with the economy the way it is and high gas prices, how much are you really saving by shopping out of town?”

Though a more consistent stream of customers is an improvement management would welcome, the store is doing well. A big concern at the moment is replacing coolers and displays, which don’t come cheaply. A survey related to “going green” is being conducted as part of a grant, and Dalen thinks it will demonstrate the current coolers are inefficient. The grant should help cover the cost of new coolers.

“We are doing whatever we can to make the grocery store profitable and recognizable,” Dalen said.

The store offers items typically found in a grocery but also features a meat counter, a bakery section with rolls and cookies, and produce – all the things typically available at a grocery store, only on a smaller scale. Catering is available, and other things like greeting cards, lottery tickets, wine and gift certificates of varied denominations can be purchased.

“It is unique because we have one,” Dalen said of the market. “Every community needs a grocery store. It’s convenient to have (one) to get what you need. The more people we can get going into the store, the better.”

Maureen Elbert, Exec. Director of Kossuth/Palo Alto County Economic Development Corp., stated,

“A grocery store in a rural community is one of the most important businesses in town. The grocery store will not only provide healthy food, but also provide jobs and generate tax revenue. Without a local grocery store, the revenue that our food purchases generate would go elsewhere. Having a grocery store can also help attract new residents to a town. Similar to a school, post office, churches and restaurants, a grocery store makes a community a more attractive place to live and is a crucial part of any viable community. It takes leadership and commitment to take the steps that Graettinger has done to keep their community viable-true community PRIDE.”