Monday, October 09, 2006

Small Town Controversies

Small controversies can loom large in a town as teeny as New Albin (population 450 on a good day). The fuss that has been raging for some months now is whether we need another grocery or not.

For many years, there was a small grocery on Main Street that was open 7 days a week, and then across the square was the City Meat Market, which sells wonderful meats and specializes in its smokehouse meats. The smell of hickory or apple woodsmoke frequently wafts over the town, as the smokehouse is nearly always going full blast. Alan and Kelley are the current owners, Alan having bought the place from his parents. If I have the story straight, he is the third generation in the business. Anyway they have a grocery section as well, with as much as they can possibly cram into a small space using a lot of very high shelves. They have a refrigerator case and a freezer case as well as a couple of walk-ins in the back. Alan and Kelley are members of St. Peter's Church, and out of deference to the day of worship, they are closed on Sundays.

Main Street Market depended on local business for survival, so it slowly bled to death as its main customers were the elderly who don't drive out of town; the rest of us would drive to LaCrosse or Waukon to do our marketing, for prices and selection. The Main Street Market didn't do enough custom to keep the fresh foods fresh. The produce was scary. The frozen foods usually looked fossilized. The meat - well, nobody bought meat there, they went over to the Meat Market. I was one of those who would run into the Main Street Market only when I absolutely had to, i.e., we had unexpectedly run out of milk. The manager of the store sarcastically called people like me the Sunday Shoppers, because any other day of the week, we'd go somewhere else if at all possible.

Main Street Market finally succombed and closed its doors last summer. The bank bought the building and is doing an extensive renovation. The bank will be using half the main floor space, but the other half, and the whole second floor (a superb space, all open, would make an awesome studio or maybe an antique store if it had a freight elevator), are open for lease.

There's a group in town who are frantically trying to line up somebody to run a grocery store out of the second main floor half. I went to an early planning meeting with an open mind, but when I realized just how much money they needed and how iffy the whole business proposition would be, I decided to have a talk with Alan. I asked him to tell me honestly what he could not offer that the town needed badly enough to open another grocery store. He said he couldn't think of anything. He is limited on space, and he is not interested in expanding at present, but he is willing to get anything anyone wants if they can wait a couple of days, and his selection is really amazing for the space he has. His prices are on the high side, but still a better value than the Main Street Market's ever were.

My conclusion was that the only thing the City Meat Market was missing was Sunday hours, and I'm willing to work around that to see Alan and his family at church every week. I respect their decision not to do business on Sundays. And I am no longer supporting the push to get another grocery opened. It just doesn't make good business sense to me. It's caused some hard feelings with good friends of ours who can't understand why Barry and I aren't leaping on board with the whole New Albin Grocery plan.


Mrs. Mac said...

450 residents? How close to the nearest town? We have 650 in the town we're building ... one gas station/minimart ... a volunteer fire dept., some light industrial, a fine dining establishment (4 stars), a tavern/diner, and a town hall. But it's only nine miles to Walmart, 7 miles to a decent grocery store, and 1/2 hour to a shopping mall. Most of our "controversy" revolves around growth and how to treat an invasive weed in our lake. The men all go off hunting right about now ... leaving behind the wives and families :) Fortunately, my home builder is not a hunter.

Northeast Iowa Mom said...

The nearest town big enough to have a decent grocery store would be Waukon, Iowa, which is about a 25 mile drive. I usually just go to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, the other direction, because there's a lot more to do there.

And yes, all the menfolk (and some of the wimminfolk too) head off into the forest with firearms at this time of year. Barry doesn't hunt anymore, but we have generous neighbors who share their venison with us. Pretty great.

Aren't volunteer fire departments the greatest!?

Mrs. Mac said...

Yes, volunteer fire departments are wonderful. That was one thing we made sure we had for our town. Some properties are in unincorporated areas that offer no immediate fire protection. We live in a wilderness setting ... and have a fire hydrant on the street just off our shared driveway. :) Pretty kewl!