Lunch With Mayor: On Groceries And Why It’s So Hard To Recruit Retailers

Todd Barton said two questions follow him when he’s on the town. When are we going to get another grocery store? And what about housing?

“Anyone who knows you, knows you want more options,” he shared a snippet of a conversation with his wife that encapsulated one of his frustrations when Barton spoke at Lunch with the League Aug. 4. While much of what he shared is largely available via his podcast Crawfordsville Connection and on WBAA’s monthly Q&A on Ask the Mayor, this opportunity afforded everyone some face-to-face time to let the mayor know what matters to them.

Barton opened with an update on the projects that make the city a community desirable to live in – pickleball courts, Milligan Park pool and three exciting park developments. The ever-more popular sport, pickleball, will give basketball some competition at Lincoln Park, and the age of the city pool calls for planning while the jazzy new Frances Wooden Park next to the historic Bethel AME Church is soon to be dedicated. Two other new parks, including the puzzle park coming (thanks to Will Shortz), were highlights.

But the real questions weren’t about parks. They included:

  • What’s happening with the Ben Hur Building?
  • What will happen with solar since the county passed ordinances restricting it?
  • What can we do about the economic damage that dollar stores create?
  • Will the hospital ever offer a delivery wing for birth again?
  • What’s happening with Acension St. Vincent shuttering its services?

A mayor may not be able to please 16,000 people at once, but the grocery question is a bugaboo for him. People want one, many want an Aldi, and many are asking about the east side. Here’s the trouble, new construction coming to town is not located on the east side, and there’s no big box on the east side. The developer that the mayor courted is planning to build about 175 new homes and 300-plus apartment units, but the city’s housing expansion is lopsided. The mayor unpacked the process he’s discovered in trying to recruit another grocery retailer, saying they want to be within “eyesight of Walmart.” Even the owner of ACE Hardware approached Barton some time back saying his business would never survive if he weren’t near Walmart. The bad news, he indicated, is that the east side is very unlikely to gain another grocery store.

There’s something there. Ever drive around other cities and note that certain retailers are near Walmart like barnacles on a ship? Sally Beauty Supply, Radio Shack, Dollar Tree? These smaller retailers look for where the traffic goes and attach themselves.

But here’s the challenge. People with no cars or unreliable transportation have only dollar-type stores, which sell highly processed (and unhealthy) shelf-stable foods, with almost no fresh or healthy food. These stores predatorily build iterations of themselves in nutrition deserts. Not only do citizens know it’s a sign of economic illness, abundant data indicates that dollar-type stores damage economic and physical health.

On the one side, people, especially those with unreliable transportation, need a place to grab milk and day-to-day basics. They can’t afford to boycott these establishments if there is no other option nearby. On the other side, Indiana’s “business friendly” policy makes it almost impossible to block those chains from invading communities. It’s all residents of the east side have at present.

Nevertheless, Barton’s office is responsive to the need for a second grocery. His office has learned that most chains are dependent on three-year-old data, and the eastside Kroger, County Market and its successor were still here three years ago. So he’s approaching them with up-to-date data. The question will be which retailer will respond. The call for an Aldi (or maybe a Lidl) would delight citizens who frequent Lafayette, Greencastle, Lebanon and even Indy, Aldis when they can. Stores like Aldi don’t always locate their stores within eyesight of Walmart, and while there’s a debate on grocery savings between Aldi and Walmart, they’re both far less than bigger grocery-only chains.

When it comes to enticing grocers, the research and resources on community development are thin. The work is hard. Residents here have an invested mayor. While we keep talking to him about needs, we can support local small markets including La Fiesta and Jarocho Market, both of which are closer to the east side. Other actionable items include attending the mayor’s forums, listening to his updates, and shopping local to make our community more resilient and less dependent on far-off corporations.

-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.