Monday, December 29, 2014

Kansas town seeks return of a grocery store, partly with crowd-funding

The New York Times today features a story about the use of crowd funding, via, to support projects like a grocery store in Plains, Kansas, population 1,146.  That would-be grocery store is the focus of Mitch Smith's report, but the bigger idea is the use of crowd funding to support rural development.  Kanstarter's motto is "Strengthening Kansas communities--one project at a time."  

As for the specifics of Plains and its quest for a grocery store, the town lost its last store more than a decade ago.  The lede for Smith's story helps put into context what is happening in Plains, across the Great Plains and Midwest, and in some other rural places, too.   
Here in southwest Kansas, where small communities have struggled since the Dust Bowl to retain businesses and residents, a town’s viability is measured by what has not yet closed. Losing a post office is considered the kiss of death. Losing a school can be a terminal diagnosis.
(For more on closures of rural U.S. Post Offices, read here, here, and here.  For more on school closures, read here, here and here.  For more on rural grocery stores, read here).

Smith quotes Jeanne Roberts, who is leading the charge to buy land for and build a new store.  
A grocery store is the heart of the town.  In small towns, it’s the social gathering place. And when you don’t have that social gathering place and you’re going outside, then you don’t feel connected.
But the data provided in the story are a sobering reminder of how big a challenge Roberts and her group have taken on.  They must raise $450,000 just to buy the land where the store would be built, and they have $400K of that secured, with the help of grants, donations, fund raisers, and tax credits.  (No mention is made of why they would not adapt existing vacant properties).  Beyond that initial goal, however, the group would need another $1 million to equip, stock and staff the store.  

The story quotes a number of residents and experts (such as professors opining on the "Walmart effect") about the likely success of the store should it open.  Even back when Plains had two stores, may folks drove the 50 mile round trip to Liberal (population 20,525) for groceries, and it's not clear that Plains residents would change given a local option.   

Of, the woman behind it, Marci Penner of Newton, Kansas (population 19,132) states:
[Small Kansas communities] don’t have a paid city manager, they don’t have a paid chamber of commerce. No one is paid to figure out how to sustain the town. Volunteers are left to figure out how to sustain the town.
Perhaps Penner is too much the optimist, having visited every town in Kansas when she was writing a guidebook.  Penner has a distinct ability to appreciate that each town's story is unique, even as so many of these places struggle with the shared challenge of viability.

1 comment:

Taylor Call said...

It is very interesting that a town so small would be willing to spend that much money to build a grocery store. I understand the desire for having a meeting place or building a store to possibly stop the town from disappearing, but it does not seem sustainable to me. Who will run the store? How much revenue will it make? Will the revenue be enough to cover operating costs and taxes? With a town of 1,146, I doubt it will make enough to keep afloat (especially considering the "Wal-Mart effect"). Further, the town is now under 1,100 people and may be shrinking. It is a good that the townspeople are being creative, but it will take more than creativity to solve their problems.

Demographics: Plains, KS (