CLARKSDALE – Like many rural Delta towns, this community of 16,000 battles with poverty related issues and limited access to fresh high quality foods is a top concern for many. Last year when one of the primary grocery stores, Kroger, closed for good, residents here were left with few local options.
But, now city officials have announced a new grocer will come into the city, bringing healthy, fresh eats to the residents and neighboring counties.
“Last year, if you all remember, we were pulling out our handkerchiefs and saying goodbye to a grocery store player that had been here for decades, and many of us felt that loss,” said Jon Levingston, executive director of the Clarksdale/Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce.
“Today, we got the promise of a new wonderful grocery store, a new choice to buy quality food for our citizens here in Clarksdale. … Every community that is economically and financially sustainable has choices — choices in housing, choices in grocery stores, good jobs … and this is one more piece in an economic puzzle that allows us to create a sustainable, financial platform for Clarksdale.”
Over the past year, citizens feared the town would not secure another grocery store after the departure of Kroger, a primary option for residents. Many were in disbelief upon hearing news of its closing. Kroger officials cited that profits were declining at the Clarksdale store.
But the Kroger here was profitable, said Mayor Chuck Espy, adding that their year-end balance sheet indicated the store produced $17 million in revenue. Rather it was the corporation changing “their business model to depart from rural communities that look like Clarksdale or Third Street in Memphis,” that resulted in store shutting its doors, he said.
“(Places) where there were people who didn’t have a large discretionary dollar, where there was poverty or high minority population, they pulled out of those communities,” said Espy. “I understand from a corporate aspect, they’re looking for higher profit margin … but pulling out of areas that is designated as a food desert is devastating to a community.”
Clarksdale wasn’t the only town to lose its Kroger. Two other stores in Memphis closed. And a host of other Kroger locations have closed within the past year, several media outlets reported.
The closing here has had an economic impact on the city. Sales taxes have plummeted. In just the past four months, sales tax revenue was down $54,000, said Cathy Clark, Clarksdale city clerk. Online shopping and the loss of Kroger are the two primary factors, officials say.
Last year alone, sale tax revenue was down $125,000. But despite the decrease in revenue and declining population, Clarksdale leaders see new developments like Piggly Wiggly, as a way to grow the community, create more jobs, and bring in more revenue.
Dwan “Dee” Brown, economic developer of P3 Group, Inc., announced the building of the new Piggly Wiggly that will create about 75 jobs, at the mayor and board of commissioners January meeting.
Instead of moving into the old Kroger building, Brown, who’s spearheading the $39 million Corey L. Moore Sports and Recreational Complex in Clarksdale, said that Piggly Wiggly will be located at the complex site.
“As mayor, I’ve been in negotiations with three other entities to take over Kroger. Every entity thought the footprint was too large of a grocery chain,” said Espy in a phone call with Mississippi Today. “(Grocery chains are) moving away from big box stores and moving to smaller intimate stores.”
Brown echoed the mayor, adding that after conducting a market study, the results indicated that equipment, such as HVAC systems and coolers, in the former Kroger dated back to 1981 and the newest in 2001. It would be more costly to move out the old equipment, bring in new equipment, upgrade electrical work, among other things, he said.
The closest Piggly Wiggly to Clarksdale is about 38 miles north in Batesville. But unlike other Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, this one will be tailored specifically to Clarksdale’s culture: focusing on the blues.
“The new store will basically be a blues city Piggly Wiggly. It’ll be more than a shopping experience, it’ll be a cultural experience for those who come and visit,” said Brown. “It’ll be designed to capture the culture and heritage of Clarksdale.”
Blues music will not only reach customers ears when they walk in, but the interior design will reflect the blues culture, said Brown.
Aside from the grocery store, other amenities include a fuel center, a loyalty program to tie rewards from shopping to fuel purchases, curbside pickup for groceries, and delivery services to retirement homes and Coahoma Community College students. Brown noted that CCC students can apply for work study jobs at Piggly Wiggly that will be subsidized by the operations, which means revenue from the store will provide additional funds for students to have work study jobs.
Building the store will cost around $4 million and the fuel center will cost around $500,000, said Brown. They are looking to secure new market tax credits for the project. The sports complex along with the Piggly Wiggly will start the building phase in tandem.
If the process goes as planned, Brown said he hopes to break ground on the public infrastructure in May, construct buildings in August, and open around January or February in 2020.
“We have looked at this area for quite some time, and we know that there’s a need for a grocery store here in this area where you don’t have to go out of town and spend three hours round trip out of your day,” said Tim Chaffin, sales manager of Piggly Wiggly in Alabama at the meeting.
“Piggly Wiggly is not a cookie cutter concept. You can’t drop this store in Nashville, Tenn., or Atlanta, Ga., and it have the same feel. …This is an original.”
Chaffin said that a project of this magnitude is not as easy as putting something on a shelf. He said there is a preliminary site plan in place, but this is time consuming due to putting infrastructure in place and building the store.
Piggly Wiggly is a grocery wholesaler who partners with independent owners, operators, and economic developers. This particular store is a partnership between Brown, his partners CORE Construction and Chasm Architecture, and Piggly Wiggly representatives.
Like this rural town, there have been other communities seeking grocery store options. Another small town in Mississippi, Gloster, struggled with getting one for decades. Finally, they were able to bring a Piggly Wiggly to their town.
The issue of limited access to grocery stores is all too common in rural areas across the state. Mississippi has the fourth highest rate of food insecurity — the federal government’s measurement of hunger — in the country. Coahoma County, where Clarksdale is located, has one of the highest food insecurity rates in the state at 31 percent, eleven percent above the state average, according to data from Feeding America.
Though many citizens here were ecstatic about a new grocery store coming in, others questioned the location of the store via social media. A Mississippi Today reporter announcement of the store on Facebook, received 120 shares, 96 comments, and 176 reactions.
Residents argued it would be a hassle to get to the Piggly Wiggly location. Brown noted the distance of citizens driving to Piggly Wiggly versus citizens traveling to the former Kroger store is about a mile and a half for both.
Although the announcement came Monday, officials hope to have a ribbon cutting around this time next year.
“I have to say that I can’t pass this opportunity without saying, ‘Mr. mayor, board of commissioners, Tim, Dwan, y’all have really brought home the bacon, haven’t you?” said Levingston.
“They don’t call it Piggly Wiggly for nothing.”