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Kansas Town Tries New Blueprint To Replace Rural Grocery Store

A brick building that was the only grocery store in St. John, Kansas, sits vacant, its glass doors covered with paper since it closed early last year. St. John is the county seat of Stafford County in south-central Kansas, but it’s home to fewer than 1,300 people. Today, the closest grocery store is 12 miles away, in Stafford. Amy Collins, who lives in St. John, said that means meals and shopping require more effort. “Now, when we make a trip to the grocery store we are planning four, five … six days out in advance,” she says, “so you have to be much more efficient.” For that and many other reasons, Collins and other St. John residents want to bring a grocery store back to town. Many cities and towns in rural areas have similar stories. More than 40 grocery stores in rural Kansas have closed during the last nine years as small-town populations shrink and supermarkets in bigger cities attract shoppers from miles away. Bigger, better? Carolyn Dunn, executive director of Stafford County Economic Development, is leading the effort to bring a grocer to St. John. The initial plan was to find a new grocer to occupy the former Dillons building. But Dunn said two feasibility studies have shown that building simply is too small to offer the kind of variety customers want. “I eat kale now, and I didn’t as a kid,” Dunn says. “So we need a store that offers some kind of approximation to what they can get in bigger areas in order for it to have long-term success. It requires a new store.” Dunn said the feasibility studies found that a much larger store in St. John would be far more likely to keep grocery shoppers from traveling to supermarkets in cities like Great Bend and Pratt, both almost 30 miles away. The studies project that a new store that is triple the size of the one that closed would generate far more sales over a 10-year period than the smaller store — $16 million more. In addition to the larger grocery operation, plans for the new store include fuel sales with a discount for people who buy groceries there, and a pharmacy, something St. John has lacked for a generation. Finding finances White’s Foodliner, which operates four grocery stores in...

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