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What’s in “store” for small towns?

Judy Meyer

I moved back to my hometown of Kiester, Minnesota (pop. 501), from Minneapolis (population 382,000+) in early 2007. Much to my disappointment, the only grocery store in Kiester abruptly closed on June 30, 2012. Like so many other small towns in our country, the one I live in suddenly had to face the reality of a future without a grocery store, and what the ramifications could be for the quality of life in Kiester.
Three grocery stores graced the town while I attended high school. Many of us chose to live here partly because we had local access to groceries.
Being without a store will have implications. Selling houses in Kiester will be more difficult without a grocery store in town. Other local businesses have already lost customers since the closing of the store. When Kiester residents must drive to another town for groceries, they often fill their gas tanks and pick up other items during the same trip.
I truly dislike being forced to purchase groceries at stores in neighboring towns. Yes, we are grateful that those stores offer an option but, in the meantime, Kiester becomes less attractive to people who might be drawn to this small, but vital, community. Many active seniors live in Kiester, but several of them don’t drive out of town anymore. Rides are offered through Interfaith Caregivers, but most find other ways to obtain food.
The Kiester city council and mayor have searched for a new store owner/manager, but each possibility has hit a dead-end. When the last candidate was unable to obtain sufficient funding, some residents of Kiester realized that grassroots action would be necessary.
A town with a heart, the heart of a town
I’m passionate about having a grocery store in my hometown and, fortunately, there are many other people who want to revive the store. There is some precedent for this activism. The bowling alley in Kiester re-opened in 2005 through volunteer work and financial support. The re-opening of the KEE Theatre was achieved in the same way, and recently the theatre updated to digital via another fundraising effort.
As we formed a board and began to gather people who want to help with re-opening the store, we heard from Steve, who volunteered to use his industrial floor machine to strip and refinish the huge 4,400 square foot floor area of the store. Steve is an active member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Kiester, as is the former editor of the local paper, who volunteered her time and ability to write updates and promote our venture.
A man phoned me after reading in the Albert Lea Tribune about the project to re-open the grocery store. He lives about 35 miles away, but wants to donate $5,000, because he does business at our grain elevator and had bought all his groceries in Kiester.
Members of Grace United Methodist, the other church in town, and Trinity Lutheran, which is just across the border in Iowa, are working together with other generous people on this venture.
The figure we have arrived at to re-open the store, fill it with inventory, and cover equipment replacements, salaries, lease costs, and the rest is $300,000. An amount that size terrifies all involved, but we are moving forward with faith and trust. We are grateful to Mason Bros. Food distributors and Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation for their expertise and guidance.
We have named the new store Kiester Market. We are exploring several side efforts, including a gift store space and a meat department capable of processing meat using locally grown, grass-fed meats. People have asked for deli take-out entrées and in the future we hope to add a small café area. Eventually we would like to sell in the market produce grown by local people. It is an exciting venture and with continued enthusiasm and involvement by many local (and beyond) people, we trust the market will become a vital part of Kiester.
My financial contribution to this project and my benevolence are on my mind. I want to financially support this project, but in order to support it to the level I wish to, I will need to cut my church tithe. As I think about this, I feel guilt and wonder why. Isn’t this project an important one involving food and community survival? Isn’t this loving and caring for our neighbors? Over time, I am sure the the answer will come.

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