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Nebraska Community Makes Grocery Store Work

posted on June 13, 2003

The folks who are left behind in the exodus from Rural America are typically older, frequently poorer, and less adaptable to the needs of a globalized economy. Medicare legislation is, as we've reported, critical to the economic health of rural communities, not to just the individual beneficiaries.

Moreover population loss means there are fewer people to build the infrastructure that is needed today to encourage growth and economic development. Market To Market has reported a number of efforts by communities to develop information systems that are integral to any modern economy. But high technology is not the only challenge. Indeed some rural communities find holding main street together is as difficult as securing broadband access.

For example producer David Miller offers this report on one community's effort to secure an enterprise that for many is mundane, but for Rural Americans is critical.


Nebraska Community Makes Grocery Store Work

Deep in the Nebraska Sand Hills sits the county seat town of Arthur, population 148. The shops along the main street are full. Along with the mainstream enterprises are a more traditional hat shop and tack shop.

One business that was missing for almost three years was a grocery store. When the market closed in the mid-90s, a trip to the grocery required a 40 mile drive south to Ogallala or north to Hyannis.

Students from the local high school realized there was a gap to be filled and began plans to open their own place. Through a combination of efforts the Wolf Den Market opened in November of 2000 and the community has never looked back.

Bud Hanna, is a long time cattle rancher in the area, and a Wolf Den board member.

Bud Hanna, Wolf Den Market: "We was two and a half years without a grocery store and the kids had heard somewhere along the line that other kids in other schools had done a convenience store, grocery store type deal and so they kind of tried to figure out a way that they could get our grocery store back in the community and that's basically how it got started."

Once it became apparent there was enough interest to get the enterprise going, parents and community members became concerned that if student interest in the business fell-off the store might close again. At that point, a group was assembled to change the project from a student-run operation to a cooperative operated by five adults.

Bud Hanna, Wolf Den: "Oh, it's great, I mean, to have a grocery store, I mean just so you don't have to drive forty miles to buy a carton of milk or whatever, you know. I just wish the kids could be more involved than what they are but we just don't have, they don't have the time I don't feel."

Even so, there is still some participation by students. Patricia Steel, a senior at Arthur High, has helped with everything from public relations to obtaining the shelving used in the store.

Patricia Steel, Arthur High School: One store actually in Ogallala said no, that they couldn't help us at all because we'd be taking away from their business and so we were like okay and then I called Wal-Mart because I knew they were getting, it's right when they did the Super Wal-Marts and so I was like okay, this will be a good thing...they're like oh, have whatever you want and we loaded the stuff into a truck as full as we could get it."

When it came time to give the store a name the entire community chose the Wolf Den as a nod to its roots with Arthur High School, whose team mascot is a wolf.

Customers can invest $25 in a Wolf Den Market Co-op card. For every $100 spent, $5 dollars returns to the card holder. If the customer chooses to renew the annual membership the next card is only $20.

Overall, the Wolf Den appears to be bucking a trend in the state of Nebraska. Between 1994 and 2000, the number of grocery stores in the state went down by almost 25%. Despite the decline, the Wolf Den grossed 150-thousand dollars from a county-wide population base of slightly more than 400. The amount was enough to cover expenses, keep the shelves stocked and pay the salary of one full-time and two part-time employees. Money has only been borrowed twice; once to pay for the initial inventory and once to purchase a freezer. Both loans have been paid in full.

Rita Bowland, is the Wolf Den's full-time manager.

Rita Bowland, Wolf Den Market: "It's been an education. You ever tried to fix meals for everybody and figure out what they all want? ...It's kind of hard to drive to Ogallala to get milk and that's usually where people would go to get milk or bread and our prices are very comparable if you consider the gas it takes to go to Ogallala.

Supplies are purchased wholesale from "Dredla's Grocery" in nearby Hyannis. Twice a week one of four volunteers drives the 70 mile roundtrip to and from the town in the next county. Steve and Debbie Clark, the owners, charge the Wolf Den a small fee for handling the merchandise.

If a customer wants a special order, Bowland will attempt to get enough people interested to make the purchase worth while. Volunteers stock the shelves when the load arrives.

The selection is more than just the basics of milk and bread. A customer can find frozen meat and entrees, several kinds of pie filling, produce, cleaning supplies, as well as snacks and soda. There is even a half price bin. Plans for the future include roasts and steaks that will be cut and vacuumed sealed by the store in Hyannis.

Despite the distance from larger stores, prices compare well with grocers in Ogallala and Hyannis. A recent survey conducted by Arthur High students showed store prices were equal too or, in some cases, slightly less than in the nearby towns.

And community residents will be the first to point out the advantages of having a store located nearby.

Virginia Sizer, Wolf Den Customer: "Time factor for one thing. I'm 12 miles from Arthur. I'm 50 miles from Ogallala or about 70 from North Platte. It's just a lot more convenient, and we can get most of the things that we need here."

Vicki Morrell, Wolf Den Customer: "Because it's handy. I mean I didn't want to make a special trip to Ogallala just to buy basic groceries. I do if I need things like diapers or things that they don't have here, but if it's just the basics, I buy it here."

Sherry Vinton, Wolf Den Customer: "Because Ogallala is a 70-mile drive from my home. This is only 30 miles and I had to come here to pick up my daughter from school anyway. And I'd much prefer taking a five-minute shopping trip in here and getting just what I needed than an hour-and-a-half to a Wal-mart and buying things I didn't know I needed."

After more than two years of operation, the community has made it clear that a grocery store can survive and thrive even with a small population base.

Hanna remains cautiously optimistic.

Bud Hanna, Wolf Den Market: "Keeping enough cash flow or groceries priced to where everybody will buy them. If we get them too high then they will go to Ogallala or to North Platte and buy their groceries. If we can keep our prices competitive I think the people will support our store."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: groceries Nebraska news rural