A committee made up of members of the Mabel community has been meeting regularly over the past several months since the Mabel grocery store closed. The focus of the group is to investigate options for opening a new grocery store within the community. Serving on the committee are city council members Sue Amunrud and Kirsten Wyffels as well as Mayor Liz Folstad. They are joined by a number of other residents from Mabel and the surrounding area.

The group has talked with individuals involved in community-based grocery stores in the area as well as researched other grocery store options online.

One option being discussed is to form a cooperative, however there are other options as well, including establishing a community-owned facility or finding another independent retailer.

According to their research, shared by EDA Director Sherry Hines, bringing in another independent retailer is an option, but it is also true that a new owner would face many of the similar challenges that caused the last grocery store in Mabel to close.

Therefore, involving the entire community and asking for personal investments into the venture promises to increase the likelihood for success. According to a study done by the Center for Rural Affairs, the effectiveness and economic viability of cooperatives or community-owned stores is based more on personal relationships than other forms of retail operations. That means, in other words, those who are invested in the grocery store are more likely to shop there and encourage others to shop there.

Another benefit of a community-owned store is that community residents and owners can tailor the store to meet the "unique needs of consumers and can set fair prices."

Successful community-owned efforts cite several factors in their success. Customer service offered by local employees and experienced local businesspeople comprising a direction-setting board are two factors that lead to local support.

In addition, those involved with community-owned enterprises state the fact that lower debt and the lack of stockholders demanding a high rate of return on their investments allows stores to keep prices reasonable and competitive.

Those serving on the committee are aware that communities without local grocery stores face certain challenges, including the potential to lose other local business when residents need to leave town to buy food and other basic supplies.

According to Jon M. Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs, allowing a local store to close and remain closed until the community or economy rebounds does nothing but place the community on a path for further "depopulation and economic decline."

He pointed out that new residents and young families are unlikely to want to live in a community without a place to purchase food and shopping habits get set as people start to purchase food in another community.

"The lack of resources and reliable transportation for many rural residents also raises the specter of hunger and unhealthy eating in communities without a local grocery store," he added.

As a community with a high percentage of senior residents, another factor is of special concern to the Mabel committee. "The lack of a grocery store means residents have less access to healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables, and the elderly and others without reliable transportation will tend to buy their food at convenience stores with more limited selections or go for longer periods of time between visits to the store," noted journalist Steph Larson in an article for Center for Rural Affairs.

Lacking a local source of food and basic supplies is only one aspect of the impact on the community. Having a local grocery store provides local jobs for many in the community as well as contributes to making a community an attractive place to live.

And, let's not forget, "Grocery stores can also be social places where you run into neighbors in the produce aisle, introduce yourself to someone new in town or catch up on local happenings with the cashier," Larson added.

All of these factors are motivating the local committee members to find an option to bring a grocery store back to Mabel.

"We are looking at acquiring properties on Main Street," explained Wyffels. "We need it to be located on Main Street to help revitalize our downtown, but also so it is convenient for local residents living close by."

She added that Jeff Engen had built his senior living apartments on the location he did because it was within walking distance to the grocery store.

Amunrud also explained the group will actively be seeking investors over the next few months. "We have not completely decided to go with a coop," she said. "But it will likely be community-owned in some form."

While the organization and funding specifics still need to be worked out, the committee is sure of two things - there will be benefits of membership, but one will not have to be a member to shop there.

"Members may be eligible for special discounts or shopping specials," Folstad explained. "But we want to make sure everyone knows the store will be open to everyone in the community as well as from other communities."

The group has even talked to contractors to determine what kind of building would be most efficient and have even discussed making it a multi-purpose facility, adding a daycare or other service-based business there as well.

Whatever is decided, Amunrud, Wyffels and Folstad all agreed that they want to use local contractors to do the work, revitalizing the local economy as much as possible.

Wyffels explained the issue comes up at their EDA meetings, but there is only so much the city can do in regard to making this project happen. "We can acquire the property and do any needed demolition and site preparation with our TIF dollars, but the city really needs to devote its resources right now into our water and sewer project in the upcoming year," she added.

The new store would likely carry grocery items, fruits and vegetables, but would sell packaged meats and baked goods rather than having its own butcher shop and bakery.

"Those areas are very expensive when it comes to the equipment needed to have a dedicated meat processing department and bakery," Hines shared. "We will provide those things, but they will likely be brought in from a nearby vendor."

Until a new grocery store opens in Mabel, a group of community volunteers continues to provide a grocery delivery service from Red's IGA in Spring Grove. One only has to call Red's to place the order and volunteers will bring the groceries back to Mabel and deliver them to residents as needed.

"We are asking people to be patient," said Amunrud. "This is going to be a time-consuming project, but we are making progress, even if it's only baby steps at a time."

Folstad agreed and noted, "People have to make the decision and commitment to shop local. That's the only way this will succeed."

Hines noted that the next step in this process will be to solicit community input as to what is needed. She asked residents to look for a survey to be in the utility bills in the next month or so and encouraged them to fill it out to help the committee form a vision for the new grocery store.