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- The store
- When a deep red town's only grocery closed, city hall opened its own store. Just don't call it "socialism."
- November 22, 2019
- BALDWIN, Fla. — When Sean Lynch ran for mayor, he never anticipated that the job would involve hiring a butcher and tracking the sale of collard greens.
- But in 2018, two years into his first term, the only grocery store in town shut down. People in Baldwin, Fla., a rural outpost in northeast Florida, were left with few options. They could leave town, driving 10 miles through road construction to nearby Macclenny, or battle 20 miles of freeway traffic through Jacksonville's suburban sprawl. Alternatively, they could cobble together a meal out of canned goods from the local Dollar General, or head to a nearby truck stop for greasy, deep-fried fast food.
- For many of Baldwin's roughly 1,600 residents, though, traveling for food wasn't really a choice. The town's median household income of $44,271 is well below the state average, and it's not uncommon for families to juggle their schedules around sharing one car. Senior citizens also make up a significant percentage of the population, and many no longer drive.
- So Lynch came to his colleagues with a proposal: What if the town opened its own grocery store?
- Abandoned by mainstream supermarkets whose business models don't have room for low profit margins, both urban and rural communities nationwide have turned to resident-owned co-ops or nonprofits to fill the gap. But Baldwin is trying something different. At the Baldwin Market, which opened its doors on Sept. 20, all of the employees are on the municipal payroll, from the butcher to the cashiers. Workers from the town's maintenance department take breaks from cutting grass to help unload deliveries, and residents flag down the mayor when they want to request a specific type of milk.
- "We're not trying to make a profit," Lynch told The Washington Post in a recent interview. "We're trying to cover our expenses, and keep the store running. Any money that's made after that will go into the town in some way."
- Though Lynch didn't know of any other municipally owned grocery stores when he brought the idea to the town council, Baldwin isn't alone. A similar experiment has been successful in St. Paul, Kan., which has had a city-run grocery store since 2013. David Procter, who directs the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University, told The Post that another city-owned grocery store will open in Caney, Kan., in the spring, and at least one other town in the state is considering following suit.
- Many small-town grocers are reaching retirement age, and it's tough for communities with dwindling populations to attract new residents when there's no supermarket nearby. Consequently, Procter says, "food access becomes almost like a utility that you have to have for the town to exist."
- Notably, these experiments in communal ownership are taking place in deep-red parts of the country where the word "socialism" is anathema. "You expect to hear about this in a place like the People's Republic of Massachusetts," jokes Brian Lang, the director of the National Campaign for Healthy Food Access at The Food Trust.
- But in many rural, conservative communities struggling to hang on to their remaining residents, ideological arguments about the role of government tend to be cast aside as grocery stores shutter due to population decline and competition from superstores.
- "Fundamentally, what you have is people that have lived in these rural communities all their lives, and they want these rural communities to survive," Procter said. "And they realize that without access to food, they're not going to survive."
- By definition, a collectively owned, government-run enterprise like the Baldwin Market is inherently socialist. But Lynch, who has a nonpartisan position but governs a town where 68 percent of residents voted for Donald Trump in 2016, doesn't see it that way. From his point of view, the town is just doing what it's supposed to do: Providing services to residents who already pay enough in taxes.
- "We take the water out of the ground and we pump it to your house and charge you," he told The Post. "So what's the difference with a grocery store?"
- With quiet streets, 11 churches and a water tower that dominates the horizon, Baldwin has more in common with the farming communities to its west than with downtown Jacksonville to its east. About 12 years ago, local officials who were desperate for a supermarket agreed to build a store on a vacant lot the town owned so that they'd have an easier time attracting grocers. That solution worked until 2018, when the IGA shut down.
- The town tried in vain to find another tenant, but the 10,000-square-foot store was too small for a Winn-Dixie or Walmart, and too big for mom-and-pop grocers. Raising property taxes was a non-starter, which meant that so, too, was luring retailers with generous incentives.
- Lynch, a retired Navy veteran who grew up in New York, moved to Baldwin with his family in the 1980s when he was stationed in Jacksonville. They decided to stay for the strong public schools and small-town feel, and, after getting out of the service, Lynch went into the restaurant business. Already familiar with drawing up business plans and negotiating with suppliers, he didn't find it too much of a stretch to do the same for the shuttered grocery store when it closed last year.
- Over the summer, after holding several workshops, the town council approved a $150,000 loan from a reserve fund to get the Baldwin Market up and running. There wasn't much hesitation about getting into the grocery business, Lynch says, since just about everyone was frustrated with the lack of options. The IGA's former manager gladly took her old job back, and resumed her duties like nothing had changed.
- Making the supermarket an extension of city hall did come with some bureaucratic hassles. It was crucial that the store accept EBT cards, but when Lynch went to fill out the paperwork, he was confounded by the fields asking for the first and last name of the person who owned the store. There was no one owner, he explained over the phone to officials in Atlanta — the store belonged to the town.
- So far, though, the experiment has been a success. The town council had hoped to take in $3,500 a day, and sales have routinely exceeded that, Lynch says. About 1,600 people — roughly the equivalent of the town's population — stopped in during opening weekend, according to the Florida Times-Union, and the market sold out of meat. Eight employees, all Baldwin residents, were hired at the outset, but the town recently brought on two more people to help out during the busy holiday season. "We take the water out of the ground and we pump it to your house and charge you," says Sean Lynch, the mayor of Baldwin, Fla. "So what's the difference with a grocery store?" (Antonia Noori Farzan)
- As Lynch showed a reporter around on a recent weekday afternoon, a woman in a McDonald's uniform excitedly interrupted him. "I'm so happy you guys are open," she gushed. "I was a regular before." Though she works at the truck stop in Baldwin, she lives in an even more rural community outside of town, she explained, and had been driving 10 miles out of her way on bad roads that always seemed to be under construction to get to the nearest Winn-Dixie. "And their meats are not as good as yours," she added.
- Baldwin is surrounded by farm country, and in late October, local green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, cabbage and milk filled the shelves. Lynch tries to buy directly from local farmers, and is working with a fisherman from nearby Fernandina Beach to stock the store with fresh shrimp. Cashiers pass customer requests to the manager, though some residents go directly to the mayor to ask for Lactaid or keto-friendly snacks.
- "As long as it's cost-effective, we'll put it in," Lynch said. "Everyone knows it's their store."
- The Baldwin Market has made life more convenient for people who previously drove into Jacksonville to buy groceries. But the bigger question is whether it can also meet its goal of providing healthier options for cash-strapped residents who relied on McDonald's and Dollar General.
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