Star Lake market closure creates another food desert

The Great American store closed over winter, leaving Star Lake-are residents to travel for food. Photo by Mike Lynch

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.”

About Melissa Hart

Melissa is a journalist with experience as a reporter and editor , combined with work for nonprofits. As the Explorer's digital editor, she serves as editor of Adirondack Almanack.(com) and helps manage the Explorer's website. When not online, she enjoys hiking, camping and other outdoors activities, and spending time with her husband, their twin daughters, and rescue animals -- two dogs and two cats.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Debra Willison says

    Hi Melissa, In addition to not having a grocery store and the town continues to fall apart with buildings in ill repair.
    The newest is the fact that we all received our tax assessments and they have all doubled. Yes doubled. Our property was assessed at $97,000 in 2019 and now it’s assessed at $180,000. How can this be. We have spoke to everyone and this has happened to almost all. And yes taxes went up. Ours another $1,500.00 per year. We are both real estate agents and all of the property in and around Star Lake has been selling less than it is worth. I.e. 325 Lake rd asking $325,000 sold for $200,000. 23 Coby rd started at $425,000 and sold for $286,000.

  2. Mac Carr says

    Here we go again- The IDA and Mr. Kelly are talking to “a number of interested parties ” about resurrecting a grocery store in Star Lake. Ya OK Whatever keeps your name in the news!

  3. Linda Grasse-Murray says

    Being a long time, 43 yr. resident of the Star Lake/Oswegatchie area, I love this town. But we have to do something about the outrageous assessments that just happened. In one yr. my property went up $36,600. I see here I am not alone. I called the appraiser who set these limits. He was rude and didn’t know squat what he was saying about the area. He finally said he would look into it, but he hasn’t called me back. Town offices are closed due to pandemic so can’t talk to the Assessor. Come on whoever hired him should do something to help us out. I found out he is from down between Binghamton/Ithaca area. No wonder he didn’t know anything about this area. We have to get a grocery store in town. High taxes will not help that at all. This isn’t Syracuse or Binghamton. This is not a high income area by any means, and it shouldn’t be assessed as one. We will never get anyone in here at this rate. I am retired and on a tight fixed income. I could lose my long time home over this if the taxes go up proportionate to the high assessments. We have to drive further than most people to get essential items like food, now this. These assessments have to questioned and dealt with for all of us. Sounds like another story the press should look into.

  4. John Burns says

    Melissa Hart, I was just made aware of this article and wanted to clarify that the Public Transportation arranged through Frank Doldo’s office is running on the schedule that has been published weekly in the Bargain Hunter. It stops at UB’s market and then goes to Harrisville. I would appreciate your correcting the information that was printed in this article. Times are tough enough right now without people thinking they don’t have public transportation. Thank You, John Burns

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