Some residents in Farmington are distraught after learning that the city’s only grocery store will close in late December, turning the south metro city into an unlikely suburban food desert.
“You could almost open the front door and hear the moan,” said Jackie Dooley, 67, who heard the news through the neighborhood grapevine. “The fear was palpable.”
The sudden shuttering of Family Fresh Market in downtown Farmington will hit hardest for seniors, downtown residents and low-income people without cars, said City Council Member Joshua Hoyt.
“It’s tough to see a staple of the community leave and kind of do it without notice,” Hoyt said, adding that regular customers also will lose the store’s pharmacy. “It’s disturbing.”
Officials with Family Fresh, which is owned by Michigan-based SpartanNash, said it was a “difficult decision” not to renew their lease in Farmington. Meredith Gremel, vice president of corporate affairs and communications for SpartanNash, said it was a business decision and not “a reflection on our dedicated associates.”
In response, the city-run Rambling River senior center sprang into action this week, offering a training session to help seniors learn how to order groceries online.
“It’s a big topic and it’s really important to people,” said Missie Kohlbeck, the city’s recreation supervisor and manager of the Rambling River Center.
Other residents, however, believe the city hasn’t supported their concerns. Both Hy-Vee and Aldi purchased property within the past three years in the Vermillion River Crossing housing development just west of downtown, but neither store has shared a timeline for future construction. Some wish city officials would do more to push Aldi and Hy-Vee to build.
City officials said those decisions aren’t up to them but that they check in with the stores regularly for updates. Some residents have suggested a more proactive approach: bombard officials at the two grocery chains with e-mail requests to begin building.
A food desert
Kohlbeck said she couldn’t estimate the number of people who will be affected by the store closing, because it’s unclear how many may be able to catch rides with family or friends to stores outside Farmington, a city of 23,000.
Family Fresh is located in downtown Farmington’s three-block commercial district, which includes City Hall, a Dakota County library branch, restaurants and a bakery. Three senior apartment buildings and two assisted living centers are downtown, Kohlbeck said, and seniors also live nearby in single-family homes. Many don’t drive or venture out of downtown, so they rely on Family Fresh.
Dooley, who said she lives on monthly Social Security benefits of $643, said she doesn’t believe officials understand how the store closing will affect residents. She said that was evident when two residents brought up the issue at a recent City Council meeting.
“City government absolutely did a moonwalk away from it,” she said. “They don’t quite grasp the concept that this is a food desert, even with one grocery store.”
Kathleen Reinhart, one of the two who shared concerns, said Farmington seniors lack transit options and that the nearest grocery store outside the city is several miles away. “What are they supposed to do in the meantime if they don’t have cars?” she asked.
Mayor Todd Larson, who regularly tells residents to “shop local,” said in an interview that the closing is sad but that it’s not the city’s job to provide a grocery store. He said that while he “didn’t see [the closing] coming,” it didn’t surprise him since he hadn’t seen a lot of people shopping there. Many Farmington commuters buy groceries at Cub, Target or Hy-Vee across the city line in Apple Valley or Lakeville, he said.
Looking for solutions
In preparation for the store closing, the Rambling River Center hosted a meeting Tuesday to help seniors learn about ordering groceries online. Hy-Vee staffers attended, and information from Cub Foods and CVS was shared.
Volunteers and library staffers arranged with seniors to create e-mail accounts and coordinate times to use computers, Kohlbeck said. The meeting also included details about the local food shelf, federal nutrition programs and Meals on Wheels.
“We know this can be done right now,” Kohlbeck said.
But she added that ordering groceries online isn’t a panacea, because many older residents don’t have smartphones or laptops.
Dooley said she wondered why the senior center couldn’t charter a bus to a grocery store, noting that it provides transportation to places such as area casinos. She added that she wished the city had set construction deadlines with Hy-Vee and Aldi, a frequent comment made on social media.
Adam Kienberger, the city’s community development director, said it’s a common misperception that cities can control what businesses do.
“The city’s role is to set the stage for that kind of investment … and let the private market make the decision,” he said.
The city does have some leverage with Hy-Vee. As a partner in the Hy-Vee development agreement, the city will forgive special assessments on the property the company purchased if it starts building within five years. That deadline is now about two years away. No such agreement exists with Aldi.
Hy-Vee spokeswoman Christina Gayman said the company still plans to open a store in Farmington but wasn’t able to say when. Aldi spokesman Matt Lilla said they had no information to share on a possible Farmington store.
Hoyt noted that even if both stores were to build in Farmington, residents would still have to choose to shop there rather than heading elsewhere.
“I hope people use this as an eye-opener — that this is unfortunately what can happen when we don’t support our local economy,” he said.