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As smaller groceries disappear, New London, Minn., hopeful a store will return

A few cars are parked Monday outside businesses and spaces for sale lining Main?Street in New London. The closing of The Big Store grocery three years ago has left New London, a small town of roughly 1,200 residents, without a grocery store. The town still has two convenience stores, but residents looking to do more extensive grocery shopping must travel to neighboring Spicer, or as far as Willmar or Paynesville. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Three years after the doors closed for good at New London's grocery store, local officials haven't given up hope of bringing another small sup-ermarket to town.

Within just the past few weeks, "we've had two different prospects," said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission. "We're optimistic about a package being put together."

New London Mayor Bill Gossman confirmed there's a promising deal in the works.

"I think something will happen this summer," he said. "I'm pretty hopeful."

But it has been slow going, with some disappointments along the way, officials acknowledged.

"We've been frustrated," said Renquist.

The closing of The Big Store in the spring of 2009 left New London without a grocery store. The town has two convenience stores, so residents aren't completely out of options. But for more extensive grocery shopping, they now must travel to Spicer, Willmar or Paynesville.

Although there have been inquiries about leasing the former Big Store space for a new grocery store, real opportunities have been slow to materialize, Renquist said.

"We've talked with different people," he said. At least one prospect was a serious one "but couldn't see the store working out," he said.

The slow progress underscores the challenges the town is up against in its quest to once again have a local grocery.

Studies show a steady decline in the number of rural grocery stores. A survey conducted by Kansas State University found that nearly one out of five rural grocery stores in Kansas had gone out of business between 2006 and 2009. Another study, of groceries in rural Iowa, found that the number of these stores fell by half from 1995 to 2005, while the number of "supercenter" grocery stores grew by 175 percent.

The economics are simply hard to overcome, Renquist said.

For one thing, small-town groceries face formidable competition from supermarket chains that do large-volume business and can offer more selection and cheaper prices.

For another, more people from small towns are commuting to nearby larger towns to work and go to school, and their shopping patterns are shifting away from small local businesses.

New London's seasonal ups and downs in retail traffic are an added challenge. Retail business does well during the height of resort season, but retailers can struggle to sustain themselves through the slower months.

The owner of the now-defunct Big Store "did a very good job of building up the business," Renquist said. "They had good seasonal business. But you need an immense amount of inventory to keep the store stocked."

City budget issues are yet another obstacle. Although local government aid is currently stable after a series of earlier state cutbacks, the city is seeing some decline in property values, Gossman said. That makes it harder to recruit new businesses, he said.

What many in town miss is the livability factor -- the convenience of having a local grocery store. Gossman said he used to shop at the Big Store several times a week, often riding his bicycle downtown to pick up a few last-minute items for dinner.

"There's a lot of people that went to the grocery store every day. It was a place for people to get together and meet," he said.

The presence of a grocery store is "very important" to the social and economic well-being of small towns, Renquist said. "You need a grocery store and you need a hardware store."

Towns that have succeeded in retaining or bringing in a grocery store generally have done so by adopting a model that's sustainable in a small-town market, he said. "The ones that seem to make it don't get caught up in competing on price. If they're a quarter higher on a gallon of milk, that's what they are. There are systems by which you can be successful."

A local grocery also benefits other businesses by increasing local spending and encouraging people to do more of their shopping locally, Gossman said.

"I think it's very important," he said. "The town is changing. We want to make sure it's changing in the right way."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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