FORT BRANCH—Fort Branch has been without a grocery store for almost three years and residents voiced their opinion at the monthly town council meeting Wednesday, saying enough is enough.
The only grocery store in town, Holiday Foods store, burned to the ground in November 2014.
Plans to rebuild have been in the works, including store owners receiving tax abatement incentives to build a new structure where the store burned. But construction has yet to begin.
“To me it’s been long enough,” said resident Lisa Bond at Wednesday night’s town council meeting.
“We want to know, when are we getting a grocery store?”
“Officially they still say that they are building,” Fort Branch Town Council President Adam Bledsoe reported.
“But is it going to be another three years?” Bond asked council members. “I think (Holiday Foods) has made their decision by not doing anything, so we need to keep moving on.”
Bledsoe noted the town has no say in whether owners of Holiday Foods rebuild or not.
“We don’t have a contract with (Holiday Foods) and we have no leg to stand on to give them any kind of a deadline,” said Bledsoe.
They did receive a tax abatement but they don’t see the benefits of any of that until they build.”
Holiday Foods has a grocery store in Haubstadt. Owner Russ Winkler didn't attend Wednesday's meeting. He says plans to rebuild in Fort Branch are still underway, however he doesn't have a set date.
"We are absolutely still working on rebuilding," said Winkler. "I know a lot of people have a hard time believeing that—but there is a lot that goes into that process—it takes time. I can't say when at this moment, but we are moving forward."
Council member Scott Michael said members of the town as well as council members have pursued other avenues, but the process to draw in investors can be lengthy.
“It's hard to get someone to come into a town this size and plop down a few million dollars on a whim that they are going to be profitable and sustainable,” said Michael.
“One of our downfalls is we have Schnucks in Darmstadt and people have started to migrate that way — and then you have the Princeton stores in the opposite direction.”
Bond says residents have had no other choice but to drive out of town to meet their grocery needs.
“No offense to Dollar General, but they just don’t have the (groceries) this town needs,” said Bond. “...And Schnucks is expensive.”
Retired grocery store owner Norm Stevens said he has spent dozens of hours looking for a solution to the problem.
He said after working with council member Michael and Clerk Treasurer Stacy Elpers, he believes the town is close to securing a location for a new store off US 41 and Coal Mine Road near Fort Branch Community School.
“The town as it stands right now without a grocery is going to die because a grocery store is the biggest volume business in the town,” Stevens said.
“Downtown as we knew it is basically gone,” he said. “Things are moving out that direction—you have about 30,000 cars a day go up and down US 41 daily.
But Stevens said the process to build a new store is extensive and won’t happen overnight.
"You have to look at a lot of things. Marketing surveys telling us how many households there are in Fort Branch, population, traffic, equipment, break-even reports, meetings with prospective buyers and service stores,” he said. “Plus we don’t have a building yet...so there is a lot of ground work to do.”
"We want a good grocery store," he said. "We want a grocery store that has meat, produce, dairy, competitive pricing and variety of grocery products."