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Community owned: Small towns find ways to keep grocery stores going

Linda Grotberg, president of the Wimbledon Community Grocery nonprofit board, talks about how the Wimbledon community has embraced and supported the community-owned grocery store. (John M. Steiner / Forum News Service)1 / 2
Joy Schlegel, left, and Patti Patrie are some of the people that have made the Bowdon Community Grocery a reality. (Chris Olson / Forum News Service)2 / 2

WIMBLEDON, N.D., and BOWDON, N.D.—Wimbledon and Bowdon are separated by about 75 miles in southeast North Dakota, and the two towns have seen schools in their communities close because they consolidated with other schools and major employers leave. But when it came to their grocery stores closing, both communities rallied and found ways to keep the stores going.

About 10 years ago Mike and Judy Schlecht owned the grocery store that also housed a meat market, said Linda Grotberg, president of the Wimbledon Community Grocery nonprofit board. The Schlechts were trying to sell the business, but they didn't receive many offers.

The community held meetings to discuss the situation, and from those meetings an ad hoc committee was formed.

"We're about 30 to 35 miles from any regular grocery store," she said. "Most of the small towns in North Dakota have ended up only with gas station food. We wanted to keep this grocery in our community."

The ad hoc committee hired a lawyer and formed a corporation, BSG Inc., which sold $100 shares.

Al Gehring, a member of the BSG Inc. board, said BSG raised enough money to buy the grocery store and meat market. But the BSG board found out fairly quick that it couldn't afford to keep the meat market open.

The BSG board hired managers to run the store. Grotberg said the first few years of having the store under community control were dicey as the Barnes County North School District opened its new school near Leal, closing Wimbledon High School.

"Then not too long after that the John Deere closed and Arrowwood Prairie (Co-op) moved out of town," Grotberg said. "At that time the store was really gasping for breath."

Even as the store started to thrive, the BSG board ran into challenges like purchasing new modern coolers and freezers. Grotberg said the board found the answer and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, which was able to accept donations from the public and apply for government grants to update the store's coolers and freezers.

Gehring said the BSG board raised enough funds to put a new roof and siding on the building. Also, about five years ago a community-owned cafe was looking for a new location in Wimbledon, and the BSG board offered the space of the former meat market in the grocery building. Funds were raised, the meat market was converted into a kitchen, a seating area was built, and now there is a Wimbledon Community Cafe.

The grocery store has three full-time employees and over 75 volunteers who help with various tasks in the store.

Grotberg said the store is important to the Wimbledon community.

"A lot of people in our community only shop here," she said. "If we don't have something, they will wait until we do."

Bowdon Community Grocery

Patti Patrie is the chair of Bowdon Development Center Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed around 2001 to repurpose the school building in Bowdon and help the town develop an economic development plan.

Patrie, who is originally from Michigan, said the town had two grocery stores but one closed in the late 1970s. She said the town's other grocery store was about to close around 1980.

The owner of the Locker Plant, a meat-processing plant in Bowdon, built a new grocery store attached to the meat-processing business at around the same time. The meat-processing plant and attached grocery store were sold to Tim Reberg in 2001.

In April 2008 Reberg died, and the future of the town's only grocery store and meat-processing plant were thrown in doubt, Patrie said.

"Tim's wife put the business up for sale," she said. "We didn't know who would buy it."

The Bowdon community held meetings and formed the Bowdon Community Cooperative. Patrie said the co-op sold $10 memberships and $50 shares, raised $76,000 and bought the grocery store and meat-processing plant.

The grocery store never closed, and the co-op leased the business from Reberg's wife until the co-op could buy the store, Patrie said.

"That was both good and bad," she said, referring to the grocery store not closing. "People never experienced being without a grocery store, which can be a negative."

The co-op bought the business in 2008. In 2010 the co-op board hired Joy Schlegel to be the store manager. Schlegel owned the grocery store that closed in the mid-1970s in Bowdon. Patrie said having Schlegel run the store has been a blessing.

Schlegel is the store's only full-time employee. Patrie said four part-time employees and four volunteers help at the store.

Also in 2010 the community opened a thrift store to supplement Bowdon Community Grocery's income, and the store has a homemade baked goods section as well.

Patrie said she doubts Bowdon would have survived as a town without a grocery store. The community was also able to build a new meat-processing plant, and Patrie said new people have moved to Bowdon because of the development.

Chris Olson

Hometown: Traverse City, MI College: Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University

(701) 952-8454