It will be a year this February since the doors of St. John’s grocery store closed.
The town, with a population of about 1,260, currently has a Dollar General and a convenience store, but no grocery. The next closest grocery is about 12 miles away in Stafford, said Carolyn Dunn, executive director of Stafford County Economic Development, headquartered in the Stafford County Courthouse in St. John.
Now the residents of this community will have some help from the Sunflower Foundation, thanks to a $120,000 statewide pilot project focused on supporting community-based strategies to address food access in rural areas, such as strengthening local grocery stores. The pilot, called Project HERO – Healthy Eating: Rural Opportunities, will initially fund planning efforts in eight communities.
The Sunflower Foundation has also partnered with Kansas State University’s Rural Grocery Initiative to provide ongoing technical assistance to communities. At the end of the 12-month pilot, RGI will issue a report and resource guide based on lessons learned in each community.
For the residents of St. John, this means receiving funding in two phases of their grant. First, in the planning stage they will receive $15,000, which will be used for such things as designing a new building and paying some necessary legal fees.
The second phase will be implementation, which will involve the use of a $60,000 Sunflower Foundation Grant. That will help pay for equipment that will be used in the store. They plan to pay for the store through a combination of charitable contributions and grants, as well as borrow and offset expenses with the rent from the building.
The city passed a 1 percent sales tax in August, which was implemented in January. A portion of that money will go back to the grocery, Dunn said. They will also accept tax-deductible donations because the store is a 501 ©-3.
The local Advisory Grocer Task Force estimates that opening a new grocery store will cost about $2.5 million, Dunn said. After the Dillons closed without warning, said Dunn, they did a feasibility study and discovered that sales would be 40 percent higher if they moved to a bigger building located along U.S. 281, which runs through the edge of town. The former grocery store was downtown in the center of the town square.
Dunn said economic development is a key factor in making the new grocery store a success.
“Our fundamental problem is declining population,” said Dunn. “The grocery store is just a symptom of the declining population.” She said it’s important to be more coordinated with the city and county in economic development. Part of the reason the small Dillons closed was that many of the residents would drive to Pratt or Great Bend to do their shopping at the larger Dillons stores.
“They were capturing the business one way or the other,” Dunn said. She agreed it will remain a challenge. “We will need to capture a big piece of the market share here.” The task force hopes to do that by opening a pharmacy in the grocery store, something they haven’t had in more than 17 years.
These are all just plans, Dunn said. There is no time line yet for opening a grocery. Major decisions have not been made. However, the committee knows what it has to do to be successful, and that includes having a pharmacy in the grocery store.
Also receiving a HERO grant in The Hutchinson News’ coverage area was GROW Hodgeman. They will be focusing on Jetmore and Hanston, working with the Hodgeman County Economic Resource Development Council.
Plus, the Harvey County Food and Farm Council, working with the Harvey County Health Department, focusing on Harvey County as a whole, also received a grant.
“We know that access to a full range of nutritious foods is critical for the health of growing children and their families,” said Billie Hall, Sunflower Foundation president and CEO. “Yet more and more Kansas communities are losing ready access to nutritious foods, with residents facing a round trip of an hour just to buy fresh vegetables. Over time, the consequences of families having less healthy diets will be stark.”
Kathy Hanks spent more than 20 years on a farm in western Kansas. The longtime journalist writes for The Hutchinson News.