Small Town's Citizens Build Their Own Grocery Store For many small communities, when the grocery store closes, it can foretell the end of the town itself. Residents of New England, N.D., saw their only grocery store close two years ago. But when the last supermarket left this Great Plains town, its residents decided to build one on their own.

Small Town's Citizens Build Their Own Grocery Store

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Luke Burbank.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

A new grocery store is opening today in the North Dakota town that's named New England. OK, this is not national news, but it is very big in New England, where they've been without a grocery store for nearly two years.

BURBANK: The Dakotas have been steadily losing population for three decades. Small towns are just drying up, and the loss of something as seemingly unremarkably but as it turns out actually vital as a grocery store often leads to another ghost town littering the Great Plains.

CHADWICK: So today in New England, they are celebrating a new sign of life on Main Street. Producers Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister brought us this story of the fall and rise of a small town grocery.

Mr. GLENN GESEY(ph) My name is Glenn Gesey. New England is a small town on the prairie. It's a very friendly town.

Mayor LARRY TURNER (New England): Well, my name is Larry Turner and the first Monday of July I started as mayor of the city of New England.

Unidentified Man #1: New England is a very clean town compared to other neighboring communities around here, my personal opinion.

Unidentified Man #2: Everybody knows everybody. I kid people, I say I'm on the blinker light conservation program. I don't use my blinkers because everybody knows where I'm going before I do. But you know, in truth, you know, they look out for each other.

Unidentified Man #3: There is no stop lights. I think people would panic if they had to stop at a stop light in New England now after all these years.

Unidentified Man #4: It's a farming community and Saturday nights used to be the big time in this town. They'd have a dance. The people would come in and do their weekly shopping. The streets were full. There were kids all over the place.

Ms. CAROL ROBINSON: Well, my name is Carol Robinson. New England at the time that I was growing up was a real vibrant town. I mean we had four grocery stores.

Mr. KEVIN SCHAFFER(ph): My name is Kevin Schaffer and I've lived - well, not born here, but raised here. When I graduated in 1968, there was a Red Owl and a Jack and Jill and a Co-op Store and a Super Value.

Ms. ROBINSON: And then when I left it was starting to lose population, but we still had a thousand people, and that was in early '60s.

Unidentified Man #5: As the farm economy dropped off, as things got tougher and tougher, more and more of these kids just aren't here.

Ms. ROBINSON: It just kept dwindling in population until I came back two years ago and it was 555 people.

Unidentified Man #6: And gradually just one by one they fell by the wayside and...

Unidentified Man #7: When we took over the store in '85, there was only one grocery store in town.

Ms. ROBINSON: Which after I was here for six months closed.

Ms. LU JACOBS(ph): I'm Lu Jacobs. Well, it was a sad day, because we need a grocery store in a town. It's part of the community.

Unidentified Man #8: And the way I found out about it was there was a sign out in the middle of the street that the store was closing. We kind of expected it would happen, but that's a shock when it does actually happen. It's almost like a death in the family.

Ms. ROBINSON: I felt it was a real huge loss. How can you be in a town without a grocery store? So my feeling was one of sadness that the place was closing. And I didn't know anything about why he was closing or anything. I just assumed it was economical.

Unidentified Man #9: When Wal-Mart opened - the first Wal-Mart in Dickinson - we had about a 25 percent drop in overall sales immediately. And with a Super Wal-Mart anticipation of being opened in Dickinson, we knew there was going to be another big bump, and we had no bump to give. And used up all our savings and went into debt, and that's when I decided to hang it up.

Ms. ROBINSON: Mom is 93. She will 94 next month. She had her little cart and she would go down and put groceries in it - walk down. She only lived a block and a half away. It was very hard on her and I'm sure on a lot of other people in town that, you know, they just had no other way of getting groceries except someone going and getting it them for them.

Unidentified Man #10: The average age of citizens in New England is probably around 57. And it's a shocker to older people that have no car.

Unidentified Man #11: It's just a sign of the times. Just like losing a school. You know, it's almost like the death toll.

Ms. ROBINSON: When you have been away - and I remember New England as it was before I left 30 years ago - when I come back, I want it to be like that. Now, I know it can't be exactly like that, but I want it to be more dynamic. And so it's a case of working to bring back some of that vitality that we seem to have lost.

Unidentified Man #12: There was a few of us in the community that got together and formed a strategic planning session for the town. And one of the committees was to bring a grocery store back.

Ms. ROBINSON: And so I became a member of that committee and took on co-chairmanship. I think we started in February meeting every Monday and just kept talking and talking and getting more support. And then we did the telephone survey to see if we would have the support for it, and a lot of people were - by that time having been without a grocery store for a whole year - were saying oh yes, we really noticed that we need to have that.

Unidentified Woman #1: If I could purchase groceries in New England that were fresh and did not cost more than I pay in Dickinson, why waste time and money to go out of town?

Unidentified Man #13: Years ago we supported two stores and they all survived and prospered. Why can't one store do it nowadays?

Unidentified Woman #2: There is no reason why a grocery store can't make it in New England if someone is willing to work at it.

Unidentified Woman #3: People should work harder at keeping the businesses here. Don't just give up and say it won't work in New England. It's our town. Work for it.

Ms. ROBINSON: And so that's when we starter going to work pretty seriously to get the store back in town.

Unidentified Man #14: I think the community really pulled together because they know that we must have something like this go on, you know, for our elderly citizens.

Unidentified Woman #4: And then because we wanted to make it a community project rather than an individual project, we decided to sell shares.

Unidentified Man #15: You know, not everybody just jumps up and writes a check or opens their billfold and gives you cash. You have to be proactive and go ask, physically ask them, you know, to buy a share.

Unidentified Woman #5: And one of the reasons we went to selling shares was because we felt that if people feel that they have put some money into it, then they will feel more like supporting it.

Unidentified Woman #6: I think, at this point, we have like $34,000 in shares.

Unidentified Man #16: So I guess here we're to the point of actually owning a building. The building, it was a former bar. It had been closed for about 15 years.

Unidentified Woman #7: So we ended up gutting the building all the way to the studs.

(Soundbite of power tool)

Unidentified Man #17: We got a lot of citizens that are working right now, that come down spend their our time building in the store down there.

Mr. ARNOLD ROTRING(ph): Oh, my name is Arnold Rotring and my age is 75. We're putting the sheetrock on the ceiling. We got most of it up on the walls, waiting to hook up the electricity. Everything seems to take longer than you think, but we'll get there.

Unidentified Woman #8: And then there are a lot of people who are willing to volunteer in the store once it's open. They would stock shelves. They would work the cash register if we wanted them to. They would clean.

Unidentified Man #18: If we can get people to put in sweat equity and get people to purchase what they need to, I think hopefully that they can realize that we're missing something here. We all need to support it. If you get that ownership going, then it's our store.

Mr. ROTRING: The new store I believe has got a good chance of making it. But it's going to take the community, and it has to be from all ages of the population.

Unidentified Man #19: I guess if you're betting that the grocery store will make it or not make it, the odds are probably that it will not make it, if you were just looking at it strictly from the financial side of it only. But there are so many other needs for it, just the social aspect.

Unidentified Woman #9: When you go in to buy groceries, you run into a neighbor or friend you haven't seem for a long time, so you stop and chat. It isn't like going to Wal-Mart. It's a more friendly place.

Unidentified Woman #10: This place we're standing in right here, I want to use this as sort of a gathering place for people who want to come in if we have a table here with a coffee pot and just a place where they can sit and talk about what's going on.

Unidentified Woman #11: Our home is here in New England. And we want a store to keep the whole community able to survive. I think it's so important.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: The people and voices of the town of New England, North Dakota. The grand opening of the New England community store is today. Our story was produced by Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister for Long Haul Productions.

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