ST. JOHN – At a building-wide meeting Friday morning, Grocery giant Kroger told the staff of the St. John Dillons store would close as of Feb. 6.
On Sunday night, there was a town hall-style meeting that packed the Stafford County Annex building to discuss what could be done. There is also a new Facebook group set up by the employees dubbed Save our St. John Community Grocery Store.
The meeting, which drew a crowd of between 150 to 200 stunned St. John residents, was organized by Mayor Juliann Owens, said City Clerk Ledonna Garcia. “She just wanted to make sure everyone had a voice” and had a chance to offer suggestions.
“It’s kind of devastating,” Garcia said of the closing. This was the 11th Dillons store opened and it has been in business for 70-75 years.
It was noted at the meeting that there was nothing the city or its residents could do to keep Dillons in the community. The idea was to look at how St. John moves forward how they can get a grocery store back in town again.
The consensus Sunday night was that a the citizens form a committee to look into other store options, Garcia said. This could be another chain, mom-and-pop operation or a public grocery cooperative.
The St. John Dillons, located at 109 E. Fourth, is housed in a building owned by the local International Order of Odd fellows lodge. Garcia said lodge representatives are negotiating with Kroger about the fate of the coolers and other store inventory so a new business could seemlessly take over should that come to pass.
Among the comments at the meeting were also expressions of frustration.
Some felt they should have been given the chance by Kroger to save the store. One attendee said he will never shop at a Dillons again.
The issue will be on the City Council’s Feb. 2 agenda. Garcia said they may try to hold the meeting in a larger facility to accommodate an expected large crowd.
The Facebook group Save our St. John Community Grocery Store already has over 1,000 members.
Among the postings are:
• “One of the best bumper stickers I have ever seen says “Your dollar is your vote!” If anyone is going to call the corporate offices to complain make sure to mention that you will be boycotting all future transactions with the Kroger Corp. or any of it’s subsidiaries. They are not operating their store as a charity, it is a business. Treat them accordingly! Which businesses we decide to give our money to in the future is our decision!”
• “It does not matter how many stores are in another community. Although Dillons has been a vital part of our community, it is still a business. Each store location must stand on its own. The bottom line is, if you do not support your local business, you lose your local businesses.”
“These decisions are never taken lightly,” said Sheila Lowrie, Hutchinson-based Dillon Stores Division spokesperson on Friday. “We reviewed all possible options.”
The division covers Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. This was the only Dillons being closed at this time, Lowrie said.
There are about 22 employees at the store, Lowrie said. The company will work with them to help transfer to other locations.
The store had been in business for many years, Lowrie said. That made this move even more difficult.
It is a small market and it was challenging to maintain a large inventory. Many customers shopped at Dillons stores in Great Bend or Hutchinson since they could find what they needed.
“It was really the only decision we could make,” she said.
“The closing of an important business like the grocery store in St. John is a significant loss but one we can overcome,” said Rep. Greg Lewis, R-St. John. “I am committed to working with community leaders to find a solution. Small towns across Kansas are suffering and I will continue to work on policies that will help our rural communities prosper and grow.”
Kroger has been around since 1883 and merged with Dillons in 1983. After merging with Fred Meyer in 1999 and Harris Teeter in 2014, Kroger now has 400,000 employees in 44 states.