By Melissa Hart
Few things test the resiliency of Adirondack communities like the loss of a full-service grocery store. The ways residents come together to try and fill the gap show the hardy, can-do spirit that is the core of our rural towns and villages.
For examples, look to Indian Lake’s flourishing farmer’s market, and AdkAction’s farm stores in Keeseville and Port Henry, which provide access to fresh and locally made foods in places where there is no longer a supermarket.
In St. Lawrence County, the greater Clifton-Fine community is facing its own challenges with food access. The region’s newest “food desert” saw the closing of the only area grocery store, the Great American store in Star Lake, at the end of 2019.
“Coping is the best word for describing what it’s like to not have a grocery store,” said John Burns, president of the Clifton-Fine Senior Citizens Club.
Burns personally felt the absence recently when he had company coming and was making a dessert that called for heavy cream. He looked at the few places locally and ended up having to drive more than 30 miles to Price Chopper in Gouverneur to get it. “It’s moments like that you realize how dependent you are on having a store in town. When you need something, you need it.”
Despite the extra miles he has put on his car, Burns considers himself fortunate that at 74 he’s still able to get around OK. As president of the seniors club, he’s in touch with elderly community members who were relying on being able to shop locally. “The real problem is for those who don’t have access to cars,” he said.
Filling the gaps
Area residents now have to travel significant distances to buy groceries, whether it’s Chuck’s Market 20 miles away in Harrisville or making the 45 minute drive to Gouverneur or close to hour-long trek to Potsdam.
Although public transportation is still running amidst COVID-19 (with no charge for essential trips), many locals have turned to the small “mom and pop” stores for their basic supplies. U-B’s Mercantile on Route 3 in Oswegatchie happens to be a bit of a “one-stop shop” of its own, with a cafe, convenience store, liquor store, bakery and bait shop all under one roof.
Owner Kim Nolan, who has run the business for 17 years with her husband, Bill, said since the Great American closed, they’ve expanded their grocery offerings, carrying more produce, meats (including sliced deli meats) and specialty cheeses. They installed two freezer cases with frozen veggies, juices, seafood and ready-to-cook meals. And they expanded their wall shelving to include more health and beauty products, pet food, cleaning supplies and other household essentials.
“We’ve had a lot of people thank us and we’ve noticed a lot of new faces lately,” she said. “I’m for the community and want to see it grow.”
For Star Lake resident Jackie Woodcock, the pandemic has brought community members even closer together and looking out for one another. “These small towns are amazing, we still believe in helping each other and many people lend a hand to those who cannot shop.” From her perspective, shopping “small” has been easier than big trips to major retailers. “We have noticed that stores in smaller towns had stock when the larger stores, such as Walmart were wiped out. Small business owners were posting on Facebook that their stores were well stocked and that people could find what they needed there.”
The plight of small supermarkets
The Lake grocery business, known for tight margins that rely on volume to make ends meet, can be a tough one in small, rural communities. Owners of the Star Lake grocery Randall and Kim Lockwood posted their regrets on Facebook, announcing they would be closing both the Star Lake store and a second store in Watertown: “We tried to be an integral part of our communities all these years, tried to help every non-profit organization that we could, but sadly our true mom and pop independent stores could not overcome the ever-changing landscape of the grocery business, its expenses, and extreme competition from the corporate giants,” they wrote in a post on Nov. 5 on the Great American Food Stores’ page.
While the Watertown store had been operating for 23 years, the Star Lake Great American closed after only three years in business. And that was following on the heels of the closing of an IGA which previously operated out of that space.
When opening the store in 2016, the Lockwoods worked with the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency on a loan package. In exchange for defaulting on those loans, the property is now in the hands of the IDA, confirmed CEO Patrick Kelly, who is optimistic that another business will take over the space in the near future.
“At this point we have had early stage discussions with a number of potentially interested parties and are assessing the various options, with the goal of redeveloping the property as a retail facility for the local community,” Kelly said.
For now, residents hope a new supermarket moves in and are focusing on making the best of the current situation. “The unique thing about this area is we’re this small cluster here and there’s really nothing close,” Burns said. “But we’re survivors and stick together.”