WARSAW — When the Owen’s Supermarket on West Market Street in Warsaw closed its doors in March, residents and those who work on the town’s west side felt a version of Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound,” as the closing created what economists call a food desert and many found their often daily routine drastically disrupted.
“I hate having to drive across town when I just need to pick something up at the grocery,” said Penny Wideman, who lives on the south side of Warsaw. “We definitely need a grocery on the west side.”
The store’s parent company, Kroger, reported that the store had not been profitable and had recently sunk more than $4 million into renovating and reorganizing it’s newer store on East Center Street.
Local economic development experts are aware of the problem, but clear answers are hard to come by.
“Anything I would say would be speculation,” said Alan Tio, CEO of Kosciusko Economic Development Corporation. “The old Owen’s closed, but they (Kroger) had just put money into renovating the one over here (eastern Warsaw), so they were looking at the real estate and thinking ‘we can’t keep both.’”
Tio said that Warsaw has a large number of grocery outlets. However, most of those stores reside to the north, near the US 30 corridor. The old Owen’s was a popular stop for people who worked in downtown Warsaw and needed to swing by the store for a few dinner items after work. It was also the only store in walking distance for residents of Retired Tigers apartments, as well as other Warsaw inhabitants who lived in the neighborhood.
“We have to drive across town now, park further away and it takes longer to just run in for a gallon of milk or loaf of bread,” said Joanne Dean, who lives on Lake Street in Warsaw.
John Justice, a Retired Tigers resident, said he was disappointed with the closing.
“It was quite a crunch for them to cut that store down,” he said. “It was about a block over, a little over a block, and most of these people can make it that far. But, when you have to go to the other side of town…”
Justice added that the old Owen’s store had a small, neighborhood grocery feel to it. “It reminded me of a family store,” I think they (Kroger) were just tired of it.”
According to Tio, Kroger put the building up for sale with a stipulation designed to perpetuate the food desert in the area and to squelch competition.
“The old Owen’s will be listed for sale, and I’m pretty sure there’s a restriction that they’re not going to sell it to another grocery store,” Tio said.
For residents who once relied on the old Owen’s to fill their cupboards, Tio said there are some alternatives. “I know a lot of these places like Meijer and Martins are offering delivery now,” he said. Another option is free rides to groceries that are still operating by such organizations as the county’s Senior Services non-profit.
“The stores have been trying to help us out,” said Retired Tigers resident Joan Kramer. “We have a bus that comes from Owen’s and they have certain times that they take us and bring us back.” Kramer said being given a ride to the store has its drawbacks. “Well, it’s hard to carry anything large, but it’s better than nothing because there’s nothing else around,” she said.
Rob Parker, president and CEO of the county’s chamber of commerce, said that the west side grocery situation is on his radar, as it is with Tio.
“The tough part of this equation is economics,” said Parker. “I am working with a couple independent grocers to see if they can make a smaller store work in a downtown location, but profit margins are very slim in this industry, so making sure the location can attract enough customers to generate profits is challenging. Not to say that it can’t be done, but the model (specifically the size of the store) must change.”
For Retired Tigers resident Julia Raypholtz, the Dollar General store on East Market is the next best option.
“The first time I went there after this one closed, I told them that if they’d just get potatoes and bananas, I’d be happy,” she said. “Yesterday, on television, they said they are getting produce now.”
Kramer returned to the apartment complex with her most recent score of food, but added that the nearest Dollar General is still too far away for most Retired Tigers residents. “You could probably walk to this one on Market Street, but it’d be pretty hard for ya,” she said.