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Local small grocers rely on customer loyalty, diverse offerings to survive as numbers shrink

They used to dot the neighborhoods of every small town in America, providing walking-distance access to basic necessities. Today, the number of neighborhood grocers is dwindling, but a few have managed to hang on where others have disappeared.

“I’ve had a lot of people tell me there used to be eight or nine of these little places just in town,” Greg Moore, owner of West End Grocery in Ridgway, said.

In Ridgway, West End is the last of those neighborhood grocers in town; but it isn’t a trend confined to Ridgway.

According to a 2017 study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, small retail businesses in America decreased in number by 108,000 in the last period for which data was available for the study, 1997 to 2012.

According to U.S. Census data, just over 450,000 new small businesses of any type were started in 2014, as compared to the 500,000 to 600,000 started every year from the 1970s through the mid-2000s. The U.S. Census releases such data on a five-year cycle which included 2014. Data for 2019 is not yet available.

But what allows the survivors to hang on?

According to Elsie Stevens, owner of Johnson’s Grocery in St. Marys for the last nine years, operating the store herself is essential.

“I don’t have employees. I run it myself,” she said. “Really, I run it and pay the bills and that’s it. I don’t compare to other businesses. I just focus on running this.”

Moore said diverse offerings are important.

“You can’t really rely on just the meat, just the groceries or just the prepared food,” he said. “Another thing that’s important in a small town like this is to try new things and constantly give people something different. You’re talking about a few thousand people around town. You can’t serve bologna sandwiches every day. People will get bored with it.”

Stevens noted serving different specials is a big part of her business as well.

“It’s homemade. That’s a big difference,” she said. “I make it myself and it’s a good price.”

According to Moore, the rise of pre-made food has changed the landscape for small grocers.

“Nobody’s really cooking anymore,” he said. “Even the big grocery stores are struggling because of the prepared food.”

Both businesses have been in existence for a long time, which Moore and Stevens said helps them maintain loyal, long-time customers.

“This business has been here a long time. I bet it’s been around more than 100 years,” Stevens said. “Customers, people are still supporting it.”

Moore agreed, noting West End can be dated to 1918 and was built as a grocery.

Still, he said it’s important to respond to shifts in consumer needs.

“You gotta be willing to change,” he said. “Or you’re just not gonna make it.”

DASD teaching students about Safe2Say program

DuBois Area School District students are being familiarized with the Safe2Say Something anonymous reporting program, a statewide initiative that gives students a chance to protect themselves and their schools.

The program consists of an anonymous hotline, operated by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, that allows students to report potential bomb and shooting threats, bullying, and suicide threats. The program is available 24 hours a day, every day.

The start date for the Safe2Say program was Jan. 14 but the district staff has been learning about the program since last October, DASD Officer in Charge and School Safety Coordinator Janice Bart said at January’s board meeting.

“Originally it was set out to be basically school threats but is now involved in keeping our schools and communities safe,” Bart said. “If it’s happening in the community, it’s happening in schools. If it’s happening in schools then we know it’s happening in the communities.”

Students can report by three means: They can roll out an application on their cellular phone, they can go online 24 hours a day and go to the website and submit an anonymous tip or they can call the crisis center which is manned 24 hours, 7 hours a day, she said.

Since the rollout in January, Bart said the district received seven tips in the first seven days. There were 615 tips received by the main center in Harrisburg, she said.

“Unfortunately, all of those tips came when school was closed, when school was out,” Bart said. “They were mostly during hours of the evening or overnight. But our teams are able to address these and extend all measures of support for the incidents that were presented to us.”

“So it is a learning capacity that we’re extending and we will be training students,” Bart said.

She noted that this really isn’t anything new to the DASD.

“We’ve always tried to stress and impress on good relationships and if you see something, say something, come tell us, come tell us during the day before you get on a bus, before you get on your transport home, or before you’re out in the community,” she said.

The district has a large staff and a large resource group that it can extend.

“When we do train students, that’s one thing that we will focus on telling them,” said Bart. “Please come tell us, you have the options available, you have the crisis line and you have the online app, but we can surely address it a lot faster if you come tell us.”

Bart noted that it is an anonymous site, but if someone puts out a hoax, there are criminally-based charges that can be filed as a result.

“It’s really important for the youths to know that,” Bart said.

Chris Wechtenhiser / Photo by Chris Wechtenhiser 

Brookville's Wyatt Griffin, back, fights to pin Lake-Lehman's Connor Morgan late in the first period of their 160-pound bout Thursday in the first round of the PIAA Class AA Team Championships. Morgan fought off the move, but Griffin pinned the Knight in the second period for one of the Raiders' four falls in a 40-26 victory.

DAHS senior accepts fully-qualified appointment to West Point

Liam Wilderoter of DuBois has accepted a fully-qualified appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., according to U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson.

Wilderoter is a senior at DuBois Area High School. He is the son of Margaret Guido of DuBois and Bruce Wilderoter of Pittsburgh.

“Liam has excelled in the classroom, on the playing field and in service to his community,” Rep. Thompson said. “All of the individuals who wrote letters of recommendation in support of Liam’s application commented on his good character and leadership qualities. They said he is a natural leader who is disciplined, hard-working, and serious, and these traits are balanced with an affable personality and great sense of humor. I know that these attributes will serve him well at the academy, and it is an honor to nominate Mr. Wilderoter. I wish him the best of luck at West Point.”

While at DuBois Area High School, Wilderoter has been a model student-athlete. He has excelled on the football and track and field teams, served as an attorney for Mock Trial, and a flag bearer for Camp Cadet. He scored in the 99th percentile on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). He was chief financial officer for the Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week, has volunteered his time to help with a local blood drive and raised money for a handicapped-accessible Merry-Go-Round.

Wilderoter’s maternal grandparents are Anthony and Margaret Guido of DuBois and his paternal grandfather is Donald Wilderoter of Valley Stream, N.Y.

Wilderoter, who is a triplet, has two sisters, Erin Wilderoter, a senior at DuBois Area High School, and Renee Wilderoter, a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Storrar: If municipalities have to pay for state police coverage, state should shoulder collections

Gov. Tom Wolf, as part of his proposed budget plan, has suggested charging a per capita fee to municipalities without independent police coverage, a move that could increase costs for rural municipalities.

Wolf has previously pushed for such a measure, arguing Pennsylvania State Police act as a de facto police force in areas with no police coverage of their own and the cost of that coverage is shouldered by the state. According to a budget briefing provided to members of the state House of Representatives, full- or part-time state police coverage of municipalities without their own police force costs $665 million per year.

In his most recent proposal, costs per person would be handled on a sliding scale – with the smallest municipalities, those with under 2,000 residents, paying $8 per resident and the largest, those with more than 20,000 residents, paying $166 per resident.

“There is disparity between rural and urban areas all across the state in many ways,” Jones Township Supervisor Laurie Storrar, who has served the municipality for decades, said. “While rural areas may benefit more from state police coverage, urban areas benefit greatly from public transportation, as just one example.”

Under the plan, six Elk County municipalities would pay the minimum $8 per capita fee – Benezette, Highland, Horton, Jones Millstone and Spring Creek townships. Jay and Ridgway townships, with populations of between 2,000 and 2,500 people, would pay a $17 per capita fee. Fox Township, with a population of just over 3,500 people, would pay a $25 per capita fee. Ridgway and Johnsonburg boroughs and the City of St. Marys provide their own municipal police coverage.

In total, the plan would cost just over $197,000 across the county.

“I would think, before accepting this invoice from the Commonwealth, talks would be held with St. Marys, Ridgway, Johnsonburg, and even Kane to see what services that amount of money could provide to the townships,” Storrar said.

Storrar said that, while she opposes small municipalities without police coverage being charged for state police services, if that does happen, the state should shoulder the burden of collecting the fee and ensure it falls on all residents, not just property owners or workers.

“Raising taxes only hits property owners; raising state/local income tax only hits workers,” she wrote in a letter to state Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, and shared with the Courier Express. “May I suggest the Commonwealth consider revising their annual income tax filing to include whatever fee may be assessed so that every Pennsylvania resident pays their fair share. Granted, many residents are exempt from filing because of low income, BUT, these people need to pay their fair share as well, so while they may be exempt from paying income taxes, they should not be exempt from paying their fair share of the State Police coverage charge.”