HJ/EDMay 1, 2006

Howard Lake aims to save its grocery store

By Lynda Jensen

The grocery store in Howard Lake may close in two or three weeks if something doesn’t happen now, organizers of a meeting said to a packed room of 56 people April 22.

Gerry’s SuperValu is losing business and its owner, Gerry Smith, has said he could be forced to file for bankruptcy, said resident Don Danford, who coordinated the meeting.

“It’s on a weekly basis now,” Danford said of the store’s operations. “If we don’t do something immediately, it will close in two or three weeks.”

The store has half empty shelves and the local customer base started to decline after the Highway 12 reconstruction in 2002, Smith said after the meeting.

Smith has owned the store for 18 years. Mark Custer, who sold the store to Smith, retains ownership of the building.

Lack of local patronage was the single reason cited for the store’s decline. “The whole reason is lack of shoppers,” Danford said.

To cure the immediate problem short term, and also help other local businesses that are struggling, a limited liability corporation was formed which will have a board to manage the private funds that may be donated toward it.

The money will be granted in the form of a loan to Smith, who will sign a promissory note for a low or no-interest loan. It will be placed into a checking account. Repayment will be determined by the board.

The pledge type of arrangement is similar to when the nursing home was established years ago, remembered Donna Reddemann.

The store will continue to be operated by the Smiths, as before.

Those who pledge toward the LLC will not have a say in the operation of the store “no matter how many (pledges) you make,” Danford said.

Members of the board are Chuck Paschke, Jim and Tom Peterson, Al Doering, and Joel and MaryLou Swedberg.

The ultimate goal is to gather $100,000 in pledges toward a fund that would be borrowed to Smith. This money will be used to stock the grocery shelves, change around merchandise, and be used for promotions such as demonstrations, Danford said.

Those who are interested may pledge increments of $500 toward the LLC. It is possible to make $100 monthly payments for five months to make a pledge.

Even if $30,000 was raised at first, this would be a signal that the money could be raised eventually, he said.

The money will not go toward old debt. Coolers and other equipment are in good shape, he said. Any remodeling would be cosmetic only, since the structure is otherwise sound.

Long-term, it is essential to convince once again the local population into buying groceries locally, it was said.

Addie Mucha asked about forming a committee that would encourage local patronage.

One attendee described ghost towns she witnessed in New Mexico during a trip recently. There were big stores with a string of empty towns in between each one, she said.

“This is reality. If we don’t start spending locally, then we can expect that to happen here,” she said.

“If all of us shopped there each week, we’d pull him out of the red,” commented Todd Weich.

There was speculation about how Glenn’s SuperValu in Winsted seems to do just fine.

“It’s the people,” commented Curt Levang. “They just don’t support the town they live in. I won’t buy anything out of town.”

Al Doering of Waverly agreed. “People go out of town even for convenience items,” he said. This needs to change to keep local businesses alive. Doering was instrumental in helping Pete’s Grocery to stay open in Waverly under a similar loan arrangement that was done there.

Pete Chmielewski’s situation is a bit different in that the money went toward coolers, Doering said.

“Pete has seen a jump in his business, but he could use more,” Doering said.

“Pete was reluctant (to accept help) like Gerry is,” Doering observed. “It took us a long time to convince him. He was worried over failure and blame.”

“He (also) didn’t need 200 people telling him how to run the store,” Doering added.

Small town politics, retail: a bad mix?

There was considerable discussion about politics in general, and how difficult it is to serve public office, and own a retail store at the same time in a small town, anytime.

“Whatever Gerry (Smith) did as mayor that made you mad – you need to block that out of your mind,” coordinator Don Danford said. “It’s not part of our community. He’s not mayor anymore.”

Danford noted how difficult is can be to make decisions, such as when Smith proposed a trail around the lake in the past, and then have people boycott or avoid the business. This can cripple a small business fast.

Nearly in tears, Mary Pettit said “There would have been so many excellent people in office because of this same problem.” Pettit has served on the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school board.

However, one attendee, council member Jan Gilmer disagreed with this idea, saying he hasn’t received one call yet for unpopular decisions. Gilmer previously was part of Gilmer Monument Works.

There also was speculation about the new addition on the Smiths’ house, which was brought up at the meeting.

Anticipating bankruptcy, Smith sold some property and then re-invested it into his house to protect those funds, Danford said.

“We need to pray that grudges will be broken,” one attendee said. “We’re only killing ourselves.”

Resident Addie Mucha reminded the audience of Smith’s unwavering support of HLWW, and how he has always shopped locally himself.

Three ways to help the Howard Lake grocery store

Residents may help the grocery store three different ways.

• Local patronage is essential to the long-term survival of the store, Danford said. There are 1,450 households in Howard Lake, and it would require a purchase every week of about $28 each to keep the store going.

• Volunteers are needed for painting and remodeling. Those who wish to volunteer may contact Danford at (320) 543-2615.

• Pledge money toward “Support Howard Lake,” which can be done in $500 increments. It is possible to pledge $100 per month for five months. Checks may sent to: Howard Lake, LLC, PO Box 245, Howard Lake, MN 55349.

Much the same as when the nursing home was first established in Howard Lake, there is no guarantee of the money being returned. Interest, if there is any, will be determined by the LLC board.

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