Rural grocers closing stores as customers drive to bigger locales

KENNY KEMP | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Fully stocked grocery shelves are becoming a harder find in some of West Virginia’s rural counties.

The people of Richwood don’t know why the only grocery store in their town closed near the end of April. They do know it’s been hard ever since.

“It was just overnight,” said Pat McKenzie, director of Richwood’s Chamber of Commerce. “Even the employees didn’t see it coming.”

McKenzie said the town was upset. How does a grocery store just close all of a sudden?

The same thing happened in the city of Clay in Clay County. There, the local Piggly Wiggly owned by Dreama Clifton Beckett closed weeks ago. Now there’s no grocery store in the entire county. There’s nowhere to get fresh produce or meat.

Folks in Clay go to dollar stores or the local Go-Mart to get what little food is there, but wind up driving at least 34 miles one way to Clendenin to get the rest.

“The dynamics of it are pretty simple,” said Kent Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. “You’re looking at a lot of intense competition from stores like Walmart. Because of the diversity of products available there, [people are] willing to make the trip to the larger stores. It’s really putting a lot of pressure on community stores.”

The result, Spellman said, is simple: a growing number of food deserts.

The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income area where residents have low levels of access to a grocery stores or food outlets.

The number of grocery stores in West Virginia rose steadily from 2000 to 2008, when it peaked at 296 stores, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office. The number dipped down to 271 at the beginning of 2013 and subsequently rose to 288 by June of this year.

In Kanawha, the state’s most populated county, Kroger has invested a total of $8.3 million this year remodeling its Kanawha City and South Charleston locations, according to a previous Gazette report. Last year, Kroger invested $14.4 million into expanding its Ashton Place location, according to the report.

The Kroger in Quincy, which sits in the eastern part of Kanawha county, closed in April 2014. Three years prior, a WalMart Supercenter opened off of U.S. 60, east of the Kroger location.

At the time of the announced remodels, a spokesperson from Kroger told the Gazette in an email that Charleston is a “strong market” for the company.

The problems in Clay and Richwood echo across the sparsely populated counties of West Virginia. Despite an uphill battle, community members are desperate to bring back local grocery stores so their neighbors can easily access the food they need.

Ask someone in the grocery industry and they’ll say it’s not for the faint of heart and a successful store needs a commitment from its community.

McKenzie said she and others in Richwood don’t know why the Foodland closed, but said there’s been animosity toward the owners ever since.

About 2,000 people live in Richwood, Nicholas County, where 19.2 percent of citizens live in poverty, slightly above the national average, according to the U.S. Census.

Fifteen years ago, it took a customer base of 2,843 to keep a local grocery store in business, according to researchers from Iowa State. Ten years ago, it took 3,252.

“Richwood is just like Clay and Alderson,” said Doug Facemire, owner of several Foodlands and a West Virginia democratic senator from Braxton county. “There’s just no jobs.”

He owned the Richwood Foodland and said the closure was “just business.” There weren’t enough customers to justify keeping the store open.

A large snow storm damaged the Craigsville Foodland two years ago and forced it to shut down. In the meantime, the Richwood Foodland stayed open.

When the Craigsville location finally reopened after eight months of renovation, Facemire said he had thoughts of closing the Richwood store because of the financial burden it was becoming.

The aging store needed about $250,000 in repairs, and each month Facemire said he paid a $6,500 electric bill. Facemire said it was just too expensive to keep the Richwood store open.

Now, even with one fewer store, Facemire’s profits have increased.

One of the biggest problems he sees facing the Mountain State’s grocery industry is a lack of wholesale grocers. A wholesaler in Milton used to supply the products for all of Facemire’s stores, but now gets everything shipped from New Stanton, Pennsylvania.

Facemire and several Richwood residents said people in the town usually don’t shop in Craigsville because they’re upset the Richwood Foodland closed. McKenzie said people would rather drive the 26 miles one way to a Walmart Supercenter in Summersville.

“I understand that they’re upset,” Facemire said, “but these people in small towns just want a local store when it’s handy.”

Like Clay, a fair amount of people in Richwood don’t have access to transportation, so McKenzie said they’ll walk to a local dollar stores which have started stocking more food in recent weeks.

“Richwood is a nice little town, it really is,” said Dave Skaggs, owner of Dave’s Hardware in Richwood. “But it needs stuff. With nothing here and nothing to do, it’s gonna go to the dust.”

Local business owners like Skaggs say they’ve been hurting since Foodland closed. When people drive out of town to buy groceries in Summersville, they start buying other goods there, as well.

There are 39 Walmart Supercenters in West Virginia, and it is the largest private employer in the state.

“We are mindful of the fact that many areas of the country do not have good access to fresh and healthy food,” said Bill Wertz, Walmart representative, in an email.

On the other side of Kanawha County, Walmart hopes to open the state’s first Neighborhood Market in Putnam County, where residents say they don’t need another grocery store.

The Teays Valley Walmart proposal has been met with considerable opposition. Homeowners near the area fear their property value will fall if it’s allowed to be built near their homes.

Hurricane’s Walmart opened seven years ago. Lynne Fruth, president of Fruth Pharmacy and chairman of its board, said A to Z Grocer was a family-owned store in Hurricane that closed shortly after Walmart came to town.

Fruth said stores like A to Z were good for people with limited mobility. People could park closer to the door, many without transportation could walk there and the lines weren’t as long.

When Fruth heard that Clay County’s only grocery store closed, she and others at Fruth Pharmacy started to wonder how they could help. Nothing is official yet, but the company is considering options to partner with locally owned stores to provide pharmacy services, she said, in addition to the groceries they already provide. She thinks this would allow smaller stores to better compete with the all-in-one model of Walmart.

The Neighborhood Market that Walmart hopes to build in Teays Valley would be 43,000 square feet and would include groceries and a pharmacy. Developers are seeking special permission to build on the land, which currently is zoned for smaller structures.

“Just because a company has a lot of money doesn’t mean they should get preferential treatment over local businesses,” Fruth said. “At the end of the day, you need to do what’s right for the community.”

Back in Richwood, Skaggs said his business has seen a 20 to 25 percent decrease since his customers started shopping in Summersville.

“It’s been a pretty hard hit,” he admits. Skaggs plans to keep the hardware store open for as long as he can, but he’ll be forced to close his doors if business drops another 20 percent.

Researchers at Iowa State found that “Walmart’s entry into non-metropolitan markets reduced growth of grocery store sales by 17 percent within two years of entry.”

While Skaggs waits to see how his business fares in the future, he has asked the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority for a $1.5 million loan to open a new grocery store. He hasn’t heard back yet, but he’s hopeful.

There’s also a buyer in Clay interested in opening a store where Piggly Wiggly was, according to David Pierson Jr., the son of one of the property’s owners. Pierson wouldn’t say who is interested, but said they’re from the area and are familiar with the grocery industry.

West Virginia Community Hub and Kent Spellman work with communities across the state to build community wealth. Each community reacts differently to a food desert. Across them all, Spellman said the convenience of Walmart caused people to forget the power of buying local, but he thinks that is slowly returning.

“People do not have the kind of loyalty they use to have,” Spellman said, “and that’s a shame.”

Reach Jake Jarvis at jake.jarvis@wvgazette.com, 304-348-7905 or follow @NewsroomJake on Twitter.

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