Rural Groceries Find New Ways to Stay Alive

The grocery store can be a small town's economic anchor, so communities are fighting to save them.

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"You're probably not going to get a chain grocery store to move into a small rural town. So it will be a small, [do it yourself], community-based effort," says Procter.

And that's just what many of these small towns are doing. Many of the 82 rural grocery stores that have closed in Kansas in recent years have reopened.While local entrepreneurs often buy and run failing stores themselves, some cities have seen success from other models.

"Increasingly city government or county government is getting involved," says Procter. Sometimes a local government will provide taxpayer money to build or stock the store, asking that the store eventually pay back the loan. In this case, the return on the government's investment is simply a healthy business that anchors the town's economy.

Other communities have gone the cooperative route, where citizens own the business and members pay dues in exchange for benefits like special deals.

The co-op model is one reason why Anita, Iowa's Main Street Market is alive today. When a local businessman was having trouble keeping it going, explains Larsen, a group of residents got together and opened the store as a cooperative in 2006. In 2010, he bought the store from them to run it himself.

Still other towns have gotten kids involved. In Arthur, Neb., a village of 117 people, high school students helped to open the Wolf Den Market in 2000. Now, the store is a co-op, and it saves residents a lengthy trip to nearby Ogallala or Hyannis to get food.

"We've got a very, very nice little store. In the wintertime it's really used, you know, because of the travel," says Nida Gorwell, the current manager of the Wolf Den Market. The nearest places where people might get groceries, says Gorwell, are nearly 40 miles away—a treacherous drive on slick or snowpacked roads.

Though Wolf Den Market may have cornered Arthur's market on groceries, it's still a challenge making ends meet in such a small town.

"It's very tough. You have to be very careful of what you order and how much you order," says Gorwell. However, the community has wholeheartedly embraced the store, understanding that it is a vital part of the Arthur business community.

"In the village, there's the courthouse, we have a post office, and the bar," says Gorwell. "There's only this and the bar. That's all there is."

Danielle Kurtzleben is a business and economics reporter for U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter at @titonka or via E-mail at dkurtzleben@usnews.com.