The Coronavirus Pandemic will have untold impacts on business across the Finger Lakes, Central New York, and Southern Tier. Rural communities stand to lose the most with travel trends changing – resulting in lost tourism dollars in the long-term, and poverty increasing as the pandemic and economic consequences gut businesses of all shapes and sizes.
In 2018 I wrote a column for the Finger Lakes Times outlining the pitfalls of letting a few dozen people, who are relatively comfortable in their economic and social position shape policy for an entire community. Circle K wanted to build a larger convenience store and gas station at one of the town’s busier intersections. The Huntington Building would need to be demolished to complete that project. In hindsight, that proposal makes a lot more sense given the realities of the pandemic, but it sparked an interesting conversation at the time. The issues were ultimately discussed in an episode of WXXI’s Connections.
See, it didn’t strike me as plainly at the time, but as I had this conversation over-and-over — first on Evan Dawson’s radio show, then with residents and readers — it became clear: We were having fundamentally different debates.
Opponents of the Circle K development, and frankly, most commercial developments like to argue the merits of historic preservation. I wasn’t arguing for economic development over historic preservation. I was arguing for the merits of access over vague plans that don’t solve a specific problem.
Multi-use anything sounds great on paper. But in a practical sense, multi-use without an evidence-based plan is really just vagaries disguised as policy.
From the moment that Seneca Falls decided to prevent Circle K from moving forward with a development to unify the Fall Street parcels the outcome was clear: Eventually one of those locations is going to close. A company like Circle K is not going to operate two locations less than 200 yards from each other in a community of approximately 7,500. Did the pandemic accelerate that process? Probably. But last week’s news that Circle K would shut down one of it’s locations — the convenience store on Fall Street — wasn’t a shocking development given recent history.
Then there was the prospective development of a Dollar General on Ovid Street, which surely would have served (for better or worse) the Village. Does Dollar General, as a company, have well-documented issues? Absolutely. I wrote about them here in another Finger Lakes Times column.
Here are some convenience store numbers: In April 52% of convenience store retailers noted increased grocery sales. The trade association that represents the convenience and fuel retailing industry noted that during the period more than half added more cleaning and toiletry items, approximately a third were serving ready-to-heat meals, and most-interestingly 28% started selling multi-pack or bulk items. Convenience stores typically sold immediate consumption items, meaning things that can be consumed within an hour. But the pandemic also accelerated the trend.
At this point it can all be filed under anecdotal evidence. But the trend away from chain grocery stores has been a real one for communities like Seneca Falls. Go back a couple generations and there were neighborhood stores. Go back one generation and there was, at the very least, a grocery store in the former village. Now, Seneca Falls and Waterloo share two chain grocers and big box retailer.
The USDA, Foodlink, and other organizations have data publicly available about rural poverty. My thesis from the original column all the way back in 2018 was simple: If you don’t have diversity of thought, diversity of viewpoint represented in government — development will leave increasingly large groups of residents as outsiders.
More on this topic during our Weekend Debrief, but here’s something to think about: We see convenience stores everywhere. But does that mean they are everywhere? Does that mean they are placed to serve communities that have seen grocers disappear and now- convenience stores start to be more selective about their development?
“Good thing there’s about four or five others to make up for it,” one person told me after hearing the news that Circle K would close. Because we see them everywhere, we assume they are everywhere. Communities like Seneca Falls don’t have that many options. Especially for people that don’t have reliable transportation. In fact, the former village of Seneca Falls has three total convenience stores that are a short walk from almost anywhere (less than 15 minutes). On the other hand, the town’s grocery stores are a haul.
Here’s a test: If you live in a community where public transportation is non-existent, have reliable transportation yourself, and drive 10+ minutes to get to the nearest grocery store — skip the ride next time. Walk to the store when you need a couple things, or an entire grocery list for your household. If your first thought is “I can’t do that — I live too far away,” then think about what that means for people who don’t have access, or a choice. In that scenario, convenience stores start to sound pretty complete, don’t they?