One of the major challenges facing very small towns in Nebraska is hanging on to key community institutions, such as schools, hospitals, newspapers and core businesses. Among the latter are grocery stores, such as the Country Market in tiny Stratton, Nebraska, population 323.
Stratton is in far southwest Nebraska, on the Republican River just a dozen miles from the Kansas border and a hop, skip and a jump from the Mountain Time Zone that divides much of western Nebraska from the rest of the state.
Residents here like the small town feel and inexpensive housing, and many of them sacrifice some portion of each work day to commute to Imperial or McCook, or even all the way to North Platte, a one-way trip of 1 hour and 45 minutes, assuming good weather and unimpaired roads. So, living here is a major commitment to rural life on the Great Plains.
In 2017, McCook’s economic development director asked Ben Dutton, NU Extension Community Vitality Educator, to meet with Peggy McDonald, who chairs Stratton’s City Council, to help build more enthusiasm for community betterment. Extension’s Community Vitality Initiative is NU’s development resource for communities to share best-practice solutions for growing businesses, creating vibrant communities and engage youth and young adults.
Ben helped Peggy recruit a steering committee of a dozen residents that met regularly over a period of about four months. Members reviewed a community profile, prepared by Extension’s Community Vitality team, that highlighted demographic and socio-economic information. Extension also conducted a community survey, and Ben facilitated several steering committee meetings to review and analyze the data with a focus on assets and opportunities.
In March of 2018, the steering committee presented findings at a community meeting, with attention on four possible strategic initiatives:
• Capitalizing on the town’s commuter lifestyle
• Capitalizing on the area’s outdoor recreation assets
• Recruiting an employer to occupy one or more vacant buildings
• Helping established business to grow
At the community meeting, residents were invited to volunteer for one of four task forces to implement the strategic priorities, and those task forces have been at work since then.
The commuter group decided to focus on housing and improving an auto fueling facility. That group has secured a housing grant through the West Central Development District to help rehab several homes. Beyond that, the City Council chair has initiated discussions with area home builders to see what it would take to build several new homes.
The group working on outdoor recreation wants to focus on assets such as the Swanson Reservoir and excellent hunting prospects, but that is all on hold as the group’s leader recently welcomed a new baby into the family.
Assets that may be key to recruiting a new employer include a large steel building that once housed a modular home manufacturer and several smaller structures. Information about those facilities has been shared with regional and national site selection firms. Meanwhile, the group is considering how to start an investment club.
The group that was focusing on business development was struggling, so Ben started a Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) program to help locally owned firms answer three questions:
1. What is working well?
2. What challenges do you face?
3. Where are you in your business life cycle and what help do you need to be successful?
That effort introduced Ben to owners of the Stratton Country Market, which has turned into a small town grocery success story that many other rural grocers might learn from.
The owners are Eric and Jadoi Voss, who bought the store in late 2017 from a group of community investors, who were having trouble breaking even. Eric’s parents had moved to Stratton from Denver in 1998, seeking a small town experience and less expensive costs of living.
When his parents heard that the grocery might be for sale, Eric came back from Denver to check it out. Eric and his wife had both worked at a large grocery chain in Denver. She is a Burmese native with restaurant experience in the Far East and a knack for sushi and curry, and she started selling her special dishes in the Stratton grocery soon after they bought the store.
Her mini-business has been so successful that her pre-packaged sushi is now delivered to Palisade and Hayes Center, Nebraska, as well as a store in Atwood, Kansas. She and her husband just acquired a second grocery store in Benkelman, Nebraska, where they are also selling their specialized foods, now including homemade tamales. Jadoi has hired another person to help with her unique dishes, so the couple is already created new jobs!
“I feel like my encouragement to Jadoi to go out and look for additional outlets for the deli products has helped them expand that side of the business and help them to grow. But it seems what I did was not nearly as significant as what they did. After all, they really did all of the work!”
That sentiment encapsulates what Extension’s community prosperity initiative is all about. Extension Educators like Ben can bring some new ideas to the table, connect communities with regional resource agencies, facilitate community engagement and offer timely encouragement.
But ultimately, what local leaders say and do makes the ultimate difference. When Extension succeeds, communities succeed. And vice versa.