closing dealt a blow to the labor force in more ways than one. “Dillons
was the main training ground for most of our high school kids as far as
employment is concerned,” Owens says.
St. John is not alone in its plight. Similar scenarios are playing out all
across the Heartland.
Take Emmetsburg, Iowa (population 3,800), 522 miles to the north.
The county seat of Palo Alto County, Emmetsburg is luckier than St.
John in that it still has a supermarket, in this case a Fareway, but it once
“One of the things that Fareway prides itself on is being closed on
Sundays,” says Billie Jo Joyce, Emmetsburg’s economic director. “That
is really affecting our community right now because our residents are
traveling elsewhere on Sundays to get their groceries and they are tak-
ing their dollars with them.”
For Emmetsburgians, “elsewhere” is Spencer, Iowa, some 30 miles
away, where there is a Walmart Supercenter, as well as a Menards home
“The closing of our second grocery store has had a ripple effect
throughout our whole community,” Joyce says. “Our building cen-
ter and our lumberyard are really feeling it because when they are in
Spencer people go to Menards since many have the perception that
Menards is cheaper. It is the same thing with Walmart. It is kind of a
spiraling effect of what is happening to our community.”
According to the 2015 NGA/FMS Independent Grocers Financial
Survey, supercenters continue to be a competitive challenge to inde-
pendent grocers, with Midwest independents pointing to supercenters
as their primary competitor.
One of Emmetsburg’s three supermarkets closed years ago; the build-
ing has since burned down and been replaced by another business. The
second, a Food Pride supplied by Nash Finch, was part of a small chain
that had been acquired by a businessman from Ida Grove, Iowa. He
closed the store a year after buying it, right after incentives provided by
Nash Finch expired. To make matters worse, Food Pride shared its lot
with ALCO, a general merchandise chain servicing rural communities
that went bankrupt and liquidated in 2015. He then donated the entire
parcel to the Ida Grove Kiwanis Club Foundation.
“Ida Grove is about 90 miles from here and he has a successful store
there,” Joyce says. “The buildings are still on the tax role, and the
Kiwanis is trying to resell it, but obviously 40,000 square feet or retail
buildings isn’t exactly a fast mover here.”
Parts of Minnesota have also been hit by the loss of independents.
“It is almost an oxymoron because we have a very viable independent
grocer base here and we’re seeing all sorts of chain growth, with Meijer,
Lucky, Fresh Thyme and Hy-Vee coming into the [Minneapolis-St.
Paul] metro area,” says Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers
Association, based in St. Paul.
But in the rural “outstate,” as Pfuhl calls it, it is a different story.
“A challenge is the changing demographics in those rural communi-
ties,” she says. “You’re seeing a shift in the economy. We’re seeing an
aging population and a more transient consumer that is making greater
choices, including driving 15 or 20 miles to go to a supercenter.”
Some of that is necessitated by the loss of the local hardware, cloth-
ing and department store, Pfuhl says, but when the supermarket closes
the little town usually goes into a free fall.
“The grocer is the anchor and if you lose that grocer, Main Street
really does dissipate,” Pfuhl says.
Things have gotten so bad that State Representative Rod Hamilton
(R-Mountain Lake) proposed $10 million in state funds to devise ways
to staunch the exodus. As of press time it was uncertain whether his bill
would make it to the floor for voting before the session ended for the
ST. JOHN, KANSAS