Small Town Puts its Eggs in Grocery Store Basket

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March 1, 2011; Source: Lincoln Journal Star | Students in Cody, Nebraska, population 149, want to keep their school open, create employment opportunities, and provide a sorely-missed community service. They’re planning a new grocery store, which has been lacking since the last one closed ten years ago. And they’re not alone in their effort.

They’re backed by a nonprofit group called Cowboy GRIT, which stands for Growing, Revitalizing, Investing and Teaching. GRIT’s membership includes business owners, community leaders, and students. With $170,000 in federal grants already in hand, the organization is now raising the required dollar-for-dollar match through contributions, in-kind donations and creative partnerships.

Five Cody students recently traveled to Lincoln, the state capitol, to propose a partnership with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Specifically, the students want to lease state land managed by the Commission along the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, and construct a 3000 square foot grocery store/business incubator there. This location will enable the store to serve not only local customers, but also travelers passing through the region. While the Commission hasn’t yet made a formal decision to proceed, the agency’s parks administrator notes that “the idea has merit.”

Cowboy GRIT’s leaders will have to buck strong economic and demographic trends to establish a successful grocery store in their remote community. The challenges are particularly evident in Midwestern and Great Plains states. For example, according to a Kansas State University survey, 38 percent of grocery stores in Kansas towns with a population less than 2,500 closed in the three years between 2006 and 2009.

Yet, Cody students and their supporters are also riding an increasingly popular wave to rebuild rural vitality by restoring and retaining small town grocery stores. Kansas State University has established a Rural Grocery Initiative to focus research, policy development, and technical assistance to support such projects. The Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs has released a series of papers about trends and strategies for successful rural grocery stores. There are specific, promising examples of students and communities sustaining viable grocery stores in small towns like Arthur, Nebraska (population 148), Gove, Kansas (population 103), Leeton, Missouri (population 619), and Walsh, Colorado (population 700).

Most examples of nonprofit/school/community based grocery store projects seem to come out of the Midwest and Great Plains region. Are there also promising models elsewhere?—Kathi Jaworski