ND legislators seek answers to struggles of rural groceries

Legislators to study plight of rural groceries

Jill Schramm/MDN Colleen Bibelheimer, an employee at D&M Grocery in Drake, organizes a grocery shelf July 29.

DRAKE – Towner’s local grocery closed in July, and Drake appears only months away from losing its grocery also.

Diane Kolschefsky, owner and manager of D&M Grocery in Drake, said she plans to retire at the beginning of 2020, and there has been no buyer interest, even from another grocery that wants to branch out. Closure of the store will mean customers will have to drive 30 miles to Harvey or Velva for the nearest grocery.

“It’s going to be a hardship, and it’s not going to help the existing businesses that are in town,” Kolschefsky said. People who drive to other communities for groceries will do their other shopping while there, she said.

A legislative committee plans to study the plight of rural groceries, which have been declining in numbers.

State Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, sponsored the legislative study resolution, which calls for an investigation into the distribution and transportation of food in the state. The interim Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, has been assigned the study and will hold its first meeting Aug. 12 in Bismarck.

Dotzenrod, who serves on the committee, said without getting the state into the grocery business, there may be ways to utilize state transportation modalities and excess storage to create distribution centers for small groceries and benefit food deserts.

“It deserves some time and effort to explore the problem and see if there’s things the state may be able to help with,” he said.

Another committee member, State Sen. Shawn Vedaa, R-Velva, has owned Velva Fresh Foods for 16 years and is a member of the N.D. Grocers Association board.

“I have watched so many of these small-town stores close,” he said. “I can just see it progressively getting harder and harder to be a small-town grocery.”

He said he has ideas about what small towns need to keep their groceries, but he’s unsure what the state’s role should be. He would like to see the state help develop a distribution center to serve small-town groceries, addressing some of the issues related to access to supplies and the distribution fees charged by wholesalers.

Lori Capouch, rural development director for the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, has been tracking the grocery issue and reports the number of full-service stores has declined from 137 five years ago to about 98 today. Some of the stores still exist but no longer are full service, she said.

She also sees more communities stepping up through their city governments or economic development corporations to provide support for groceries.

The Towner Development Corp. is working to see what can be done to restart the community’s closed grocery. The City of Drake also is looking at options.

“We are very concerned about keeping the grocery going,” said Melissa Uhlich, Drake City Council member. “Anytime a business closes here it impacts us greatly.”

The city and Drake Community Club are willing to purchase the store’s equipment, and the store has experienced staff willing to continue if someone were to buy the inventory and operate the store, she said.

The city already holds the deed on the building. The city doesn’t want to see the building sit vacant, but it also faces a situation in which it would have to pay back the federal government if sells the building, Uhlich said. In 2010, Drake had received a federal grant to help rebuild the grocery after the store was damaged by fire two years earlier. The city and store pitched in with additional money, and $10,000 came from Minot’s sales-tax-supported MAGIC Fund.

Uhlich said the city would take over the grocery if it could, but as a small town, it doesn’t have the tax base to invest in that kind of operation. Loss of the grocery also would affect the community’s Meals on Wheels service to seniors, which is provided through the store.

Kolschefsky, who has been in the business nearly 20 years, said limited support is the biggest issue facing the Drake grocery.

“That hurts a lot,” she said. “Younger people just don’t shop in town.”

Dotzenrod and Vedaa say mounting a successful fight to save local groceries can’t happen if community residents aren’t on board.

The legislative committee must answer the question of what consumers want, Dotzenrod said. People are more mobile and less averse to traveling farther for groceries. There’s also the question of demographics and whether it’s worth trying to save a grocery in a town that is dying, he said.

“The biggest problem we are going to have is defining the problem,” Dotzenrod said.

However, he added the loss of a grocery store is often the first sign of an ongoing decline that leads to difficulty sustaining other quality-of-life services, from health care to social services.

“In a way, this discussion about grocery stores is also more of a discussion about these other things,” he said.

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