Gowrie standing up to save last grocery store

-Messenger file photo by Elijah Decious
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, met with Nick Graham, owner of Jamboree Foods in Gowrie, at a stop in August 2019. The nearest grocery stores outside outside of Gowrie are a 30-minute drive.

GOWRIE — After a string of small towns nearby have lost their only grocery store, Gowrie community and business leaders are attempting to avoid the same fate.

Newly-formed Gowrie Grocery LLC will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the community room in Heartland Bank, 1201 Market St.

Gowrie’s only grocery store, Heartland Market (known as Jamboree Foods), is part of the small chain owned by Nick Graham that had several closures throughout 2019, most recently in Rockwell City and Manson.

“We have been in contact with Nick because we want to know the direction it’s going in,” said Marcie Boerner, owner of Liberty Market and leader in the local business community.

She said open, ongoing discussions with Graham have indicated he is open to selling the store.

“Our goal is to purchase it,” Boerner said.

The informational meeting will address questions and concerns as the group continues to plan a course of action. A flyer advertising the meeting states a goal of raising $250,000 by Jan. 15 to purchase the existing building on Market Street, its fixtures, new inventory, Associated Wholesale Grocers stock and to maintain working capital to manage the store locally.

An LLC membership requires a minimum $2,500 investment.

“All donations welcome,” the flyer says.

The group spearheading the effort includes local business owners, members of the Gowrie Development Commission and Dr. Bruce Towne, mayor-elect of Gowrie.

Towne said the group has received no official notice of Graham’s intention to close the store, but is heading off the effort proactively to avoid a potential closing, given the small chain’s pattern of closures.

The Webster County town has an official population of 1,037, according to the 2010 census. More recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates peg that number at 979.

The former number puts it at less than half the estimated population of Rockwell City, where Graham’s last store closure was announced earlier in December. His store in Manson, which closed in November, served a population of about 1,600.

The closings in Manson and Rockwell City, in addition to other towns, have left most of Calhoun County without a grocery store.

A “help wanted” Facebook post from Jamboree Foods on Dec. 10 said the store was looking to hire full-time employees for the meat department, unloading trucks and stocking shelves, as well as part-time employees for check-out and the deli department.

In a December interview with The Messenger, Graham cited a variety of factors for the decline of his grocery stores, including the proliferation of general merchandise stores like Dollar General.

Though Gowrie does not yet have a Dollar General, Webster County Supervisors approved a controversial rezoning in November to change a three-acre property outside Gowrie city limits from the transitional agricultural A-2 designation to the commercial C-1 designation.

It passed with a 3-2 vote after a variety of concerns voiced by several citizens and one of the county’s Planning & Zoning Commission members, Margo Knippel.

“That sets us up for problems,” Towne said of the rezoning after he unseated incumbent Mayor Gayle Redman. “Our comprehensive plan was to keep everyone downtown, and now they’re going to be completely outside of town.”

He believes it will set a bad precedent in small towns across the state — not just Webster County — that are attempting to keep or revitalize retail in their downtown by maintaining a robust tax base structure.

“Every time 40 kids graduate and 20 kids enroll in kindergarten, you have more pressure,” Graham told The Messenger during an August visit with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, noting that broadband connectivity and a more decentralized local food production were big priority items for his business.

The Messenger did not note any other significant items of concern raised by Graham during his public chat with Ernst, as she prompted him.

The junior senator’s fellow Republican, Rep. Steve King, faces a potential challenge from Democratic candidate J.D. Scholten in the 2020 election. Scholten, who came within three points of beating King in 2018, has been touring towns of 1,000 people or less where he has heard a variety of concerns about eroding infrastructure and rural Americans being left behind in globalization trends.

Last week, Scholten recorded a video in front of Graham’s West Street Market store in Manning, which announced in December that it will soon close.

“What we’re seeing across rural America is, it’s getting harder and harder to live,” he said. “I believe that every ZIP code should have access to quality, healthy food.”

Graham could not be reached for comment by press time.


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