Small Town U.S.A.
Many rural towns are facing an identity crisis as they aim to keep Main Street businesses and the face of their communities intact during hard economic times.
“If you start closing Main Street businesses; the town is gone,” said Kay McCloud, manager of Brownlow’s Red Owl in LeRoy.
In some areas, that identity may be fading with aging populations and stagnant rural economies. Because of the tough economic times and the aging baby boomer generation, small towns are looking to keep Main Street stores operating in a time when larger communities are often dominated by retail and restaurant chains.
“I think small towns are the only ones left with identities,” McCloud said. “Doesn’t matter what city you go to, it’s all the same. They all have a Walmart. They all have a Lowes. They all have a Home Depot. They all have an Applebee’s. They all have a McDonalds. You can’t go find somewhere different to eat.”
“They all look the same,” she added.
When a small town Main Street store closes, its doors often don’t reopen. McCloud said that happens largely because of the investment needed to start such a store.
That’s been the case recently in Brownsdale after K&K Groceries closed last January. Town leaders have tried to attract new owners, but most people have told them it’s not profitable with the business so close to Austin, said Brownsdale Mayor Robert Luthe.
Many people in the community simply travel 10 miles to Austin to shop and visit the doctor or dentist, Luthe said.
Another former Brownsdale business, the Route 56 restaurant, benefited from the close proximity to Austin. According to Robin Akkerman, head of the Brownsdale Area Business Association, the restaurant attracted customers from Austin and surrounding communities.
However, Route 56 restaurant in Brownsdale closed last summer. Akkerman said the original owner who opened the Route 56 was building a profitable business until a family death caused him to move to Arizona.
Another owner opened the Route 56, but the restaurant closed last summer.
Like Route 56, many factors aside from economics can cause owners to close a business. According to Akkerman, K&K Groceries was doing well until Highway 56 was resurfaced from Brownsdale to Interstate 90. She said people may have started shopping elsewhere during the construction, and the business never picked up again.
Brownsdale’s barbershop closed after the owner died.
According to Akkerman, the owner had a strong customer base that followed him when he moved his business from Austin to Brownsdale. A new owner hasn’t stepped forward to reopen the business.
Ed Koppen, owner of Koppen Hardware in LeRoy, said he has contingency plans for different scenarios like retirement. However, he said few small town business owners have a concrete plan in place. Each situation, he said, depends on timing and whether or not there’s a potential buyer.
Koppen said small towns like LeRoy have been affected by the tight economy much like other parts of the county. However, city clerk Patty White said the city of LeRoy has been fortunate compared to other areas and other cities hit harder by the economy.
Even before the recession, the business landscape in LeRoy has changed quite a bit. Martz Furniture, which had been family owned for decades closed about a decade ago. At one point, LeRoy had three hardware stores. Now Koppen’s store is the only one still operating, he said.
Koppen also said he’s eliminated many of the services he used to offer, like commercial refrigeration and air conditioning work. He still offers limited appliance sales and repairs.
“It wasn’t profitable to maintain the services anymore,” he said.
According Koppen, the businesses still operating have had to make adjustments. Koppen used to employ three to five full-time employees when he was building his business, but he said he now has one part-time employee and a full-time employee at times.
While some retail stores have managed to remain stable, Koppen said that’s still a loss in this economy. Koppen said rural stores can’t match the sales of metropolitan stores.
“Rural Minnesota can’t achieve the volume versus suburban Minnesota, metro Minnesota,” Koppen said. “Therefore, your suppliers that will service rural areas aren’t as plentiful.”
Outside of larger cities, Koppen said there are fewer suppliers willing to provide products to stores. And, he said there are fewer businesses that deliver and repair appliances like heating and air conditioning units. If they do provide the services, it often costs more than it used to.
Like Koppen, Tina Ellis, manager of Brownsdale’s Greenway Co-Op convenience store, said suppliers that used to deliver supplies like pop twice a month now come once a month. Often times if the order isn’t big enough, they’ll hold the delivery until the order is bigger.
“I think a lot of small towns that you drive through, you see tons of empty buildings now,” Ellis said. “The grocery stores, and even the convenience stores that have gas stations, they can’t compete with the Kwik Trips.”
After the Route 56 and K&K Groceries closed in Brownsdale, Greenway adapted to fill the void.
Along with expanding the store’s selection of grocery products, the store now has to-go pizzas and an expanded lunch counter, Ellis said.
“They have to try to accommodate the communities that can’t get into the big town,” she said.
At Brownlow’s Red Owl, 108 Main St. in LeRoy, McCloud said her store has been affected by the economy. The store is often busy the first two weeks of the month when people receive paychecks, but then business is slow the last two weeks, she said.
The store has been in McCloud’s family for more than 80 years and has stayed open in a building that hasn’t been renovated since the 1960s.
However, McCloud said many people choose to shop in larger towns. While the nearest Walmart is more than 30 miles away, McCloud said the Red Owl has fallen victim to the Walmart effect.
McCloud said she saw a big shift in business when a Walmart store opened in south Rochester. However, she said she didn’t see the same effect when Walmart opened in Austin.
“I think people sometimes forget to shop in their home towns,” McCloud said. “They work outside of town, and I think it’s easier for them to shop in Austin or Rochester. But they have to remember that if they don’t shop here, we won’t be here.”
With a large percentage of rural citizens working in or near cities like Austin and Rochester, McCloud said many people choose to shop at larger grocery stores on their way home from work.
In the past, McCloud said people off work for an extended time for things like maternity leave, often shop locally when they’re off work. However, they’ll begin shopping elsewhere when they return to their old routine once they start work again.
McCloud’s father, Robert Brownlow, owns the Red Owl and has been working at the store for about 55 years. He said the dynamics of small towns has changed.
“Small towns used to be a together group, and now small towns are independent people going where they want to go.” Brownlow said.
With many shoppers choosing a stop at a larger grocery store on their way home from work, Brownlow’s Red Owl has continued to offer unique services to stay competitive. Each Friday, Red Owl employees deliver groceries to people who can’t get out to shop on their own, McCloud said.
“You don’t get that kind of service when you go to a chain store,” she said.
The store often takes special orders for businesses around town, and McCloud said she can often order items they don’t carry in stock. McCloud delivers to Wildwood Grove, an assisted living facility, and to special needs houses in LeRoy. Without that support, McCloud said the store might not be able to survive.
Since the K&K grocery store closed, Akkerman said Greenway Co-Op gas station has started offering more grocery items and lunch foods. The station has expanded its lunch counter to offer more foods, and they’re planning to offer more grocery items.
Even though commuters often shop where it’s most convenient, McCloud said LeRoy often benefits from its distance from larger communities. LeRoy is about 35 miles from Rochester and about 30 miles from Austin.
Brownlow’s Red Owl and Mason Brothers’ Red Owl in Green Bay, Wis. are the only two stores remaining in the chain. McCloud collects old Red Owl memorabilia, and she’s turned the store into what she described as a museum.
McCloud said tourism is an important aspect of small towns, and small-town businesses.
“We’re just an old fashioned grocery store,” she said. “The last time we remodeled was 1967. A lot of people from the cities, they like that. They like the service they get.”
Various Red Owl trinkets line shelves around the store, and McCloud said it’s a way to entice people to the store. She said people will come to the store to purchase Red Owl T-shirts if they have a family member who once worked at Red Owl. McCloud’s Red Owl memorabilia was even featured in the Coen brother’s film “A Serious Man.”
White said such things have helped promote the community. Many people often pass through LeRoy because of Shooting Star Bike Trail and Lake Louise State Park.
Recently, Brownsdale and LeRoy officials campaigned for people to shop locally, much like the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Buy Mower Grow Mower campaign. Along with that, White said LeRoy’s Economic Development Authority campaigned a few years ago to attract people to visit and potentially move to LeRoy. The drive included television commercials, a new town logo and many other things.
Akkerman and White both said schools are an important part of keeping small town’s active. LeRoy still has a kindergarten through 12th-grade school, and Brownsdale has a kindergarten through third-grade school.
In LeRoy, White said wind towers have been an important addition to the rural economy. Not only has an office for the wind farm added new jobs, White also said the wind farm has brought new business for Main Street shops.
While small towns have had their hardships economically, Luthe said the town is still a great place to raise a family. He said they’ll keep promoting the community and hope that one day, a grocery store and other businesses open once again.
“It’s still a great community,” Luthe said. “If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”