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Checking Out in Houston
By Brent Wolfe
November 23, 1999
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Residents of the small town of Houston in southeastern Minnesota had to drive 10 to 15 miles to get their Thanksgiving turkeys this week. The only grocery store in this town of 1,000 closed its doors a little over a year ago. A group of residents has formed a co-op to try to re-open the store. The future of the town may be dependent on their success.

ROSEMARY BUEGE, or Rosie as the locals call her, runs a German restaurant in Houston. The white-and-red sign in front reads simply, "German Food." She used to walk up the street to the IGA store for her supplies, but now, when the cabbage or cream runs out, she closes up shop and drives 20 miles for provisions.
Buege: See sometimes now, when I run out with something, then I have to make a sign on the door, back this and this time because I have to go, rush to Rushford and pick something up.
Around the corner at the community center, senior citizens gathering for lunch and an intimate game of bingo also feel the loss of their local grocery.

This summer, a group of Houston residents formed the Root River Market Co-op to try to bring the store back. They've sold 300 memberships at $100 per household. They need to raise $350,000, mostly through loans, to stock the shelves and open the store. Board member Peter Denzer says the community support has been tremendous but the board had to dispel some notions about co-ops at first.
Denzer: Some people think it's a store where you get strange foods, exotic things like tofu or bean sprouts. And those are all right things for people who want them but there isn't much demand for tofu and bean sprouts here, so we're not going to have them at the outset. If demand grows, I suppose we'll get bean sprouts and tofu.
Denzer says the board plans to hire a professional manager who will respond to the desires of customers. He also wants to get produce and eventually meat from local farmers.

Iowa State University economics professor Ken Stone studies business trends in small towns. He says some towns have been successful using co-ops to operate the local grocery store. Stone says a grocery store is a "linchpin" business in a small community.
Stone: If you have a small town that loses its last grocery store, the people in that town no longer have a choice. They have to go somewhere to shop for the basic necessities of life and when they go ostensibly to shop for groceries, you can bet they buy other things that they typically would have bought in their own hometown. So it starts becoming the death knell for many of the other businesses in the small town.
Houston used to have four grocery stores and three car dealerships 20 years ago, before Interstate 90 was built 10 miles north of town. The population has held steady at about 1,000 but the number of businesses on Main Street is down to a handful. Co-op board member Peter Denzer says Houston residents realize the importance of the store and are employing a sophisticated marketing plan.
Denzer: We are not country bumpkins. And I think that's important for people who are outside of small towns to realize, small towns have a very deep and important culture. I think the roots of democracy are right here in small towns and we have to save those small towns. That's part of our mission I think.
Denzer and his neighbors plan to open the Root River Market for business early next year. Residents hope the store and an extension of the Root River bike trail to Houston next year will keep the town alive.