About 100 residents attended the March 27 meeting of the Wellington Town Board to show support for Main Street Market, set to close on May 18.
“But 90 percent of the people who got up to speak admitted that they don’t shop there on a regular basis, just for picking up items occasionally,” said board member Jack Brinkhoff, who said he buys “100 percent” of his groceries at Main Street. “I had to tell them that they were partly responsible for the store’s demise.”
With three board members absent and Mayor Travis Vieria recusing himself because he is employed as assistant manager of Main Street, the board could not take any formal action. However, Brinkhoff said the members present agreed that the next step would be for the board to open discussions directly with Panhandle Coop in Scottsbluff, Neb., owners of the market.
“(Panhandle) have made it clear they are willing to listen,” Brinkhoff said. “And we’re willing to give it a shot, even if it means driving up to Nebraska. There are no guarantees, but we really don’t want to see the store go away.”
Panhandle President Bob Pile announced on Friday, March 23, that the coop could no longer afford to keep Wellington’s only grocery store open in the face of continuing financial losses.
One idea that Brinkhoff said the board is looking at very seriously is doing away with the town’s 3 percent sales tax on food. That would save Main Street about $100,000 per year, he said. Panhandle paid a total of $145,000 in sales taxes in 2011.
“Whether that would be enough of an incentive for them to stay, I don’t know, but it’s something we as a town could do,” Brinkhoff said, adding that he would not want to proceed with such a resolution until after receiving buy-in from Panhandle, since it would affect all food sales in town.
Brinkhoff said it would be “an uphill battle” to convince another major grocer to locate in Wellington if Main Street Market closes because it couldn’t make enough money after being in business for five years.
He also said that, as a private citizen, he has asked the owner of the building at Sixth and Jefferson streets to put a fair market value on the Main Street space. Panhandle has two years left on the current lease.
“Someone in the audience at the board meeting indicated that he might be willing to buy the building and work with Panhandle on (reducing the cost of) the lease – if the price were right,” Brinkhoff said. “The town can’t get involved in that, obviously, but private individuals might be able to step up. We’ll have to see what happens.”