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Struggling to survive

10/27/2013

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GOVE -- Even as the smallest county seat in Kansas, the city of Gove long has maintained a larger-than-life presence in the projects it undertakes.

Today, its future is in jeopardy because the town -- where it's believed no more than 73 people live -- no longer is able to support a community-owned grocery store.

The store's also been hurt by a lack of support from some local residents, according to members of the Gove Community Improvement Association board that operates the grocery and owns the building housing it and the County Seat Cafe.

If the demise of the grocery ultimately means the loss of the cafe, board members openly worry about losing offices housing two federal agencies and perhaps even county government offices.

The cafe is open and operating, leased through April from GCIA for just $150 a month, raising concerns a new owner might not extend the lease or sharply raise prices.

But the losses at the grocery have gone on too long, and there's little sign things will change, board members say.

That's why sealed bids on the building are being solicited, due by noon Tuesday. The GCIA will open the bids that night.

Board chairman Rich Beesley holds out hope someone might step forward and buy the building and keep the store operating, either as a convenience store or a "Mom and Pop" grocery.

He and others doubt that will happen.

He's most concerned about the cafe remaining open, knowing full well federal officials have dictated the need for a place to eat if either the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service are to remain in Gove.

In early 2007, for example, Gove and its supporters successfully fought back against a proposal to fold those offices in with Oakley's.

At a recent meeting of the GCIA board, members went so far as to voice concern about keeping county offices in Gove, even though there's been no suggestion that could happen.

The health department, however, is preparing to move to Quinter.

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It's been a long tumble for a grocery that returned to life more than 30 years ago when Gove residents banded together, sold memberships in a community association and took over the grocery and cafe. For a time, the Gove store served as a lifeline for other area grocery stores, delivering foods to small stores in the area.

It was an effort driven by volunteers who were up before dawn to load trucks.

Today, it picks up groceries from the grocery in Oakley, making a stop at the community grocery in Grinnell before heading south.

Driver Ron Powers gets paid in the form of lunch next door at the cafe.

The losses in the grocery store aren't huge, Beesley said, but they've been persistent and unsustainable.

Plus, the association has debt hanging over its head, approximately $21,000 in a bank loan and another $15,000 due to the Gove Odd Fellows lodge.

Beesley said it's hoped the building sale will cover the debt at the bank, while remaining inventory in the store can be sold to repay the Odd Fellows lodge.

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"We just can't continue the way we're going," Beesley said of the store losing money.

GCIA board members, however, are hoping the association survives the sale, although the idea of declaring bankruptcy if no bids are submitted was broached.

"It's going to hurt," Beesley said of the store closing. "There's not that many business in Gove, but it's going to take business elsewhere."

And if people have to drive to get groceries, they're going to go where they can do other shopping as well, likely to either Colby or Hays.

Beesley's greatest concern, however, is the possible loss of the two federal offices should the cafe ultimately close.

And if the building doesn't sell, but the grocery closes, there won't be any money coming in to pay for electricity or taxes to help keep the cafe going.

"How do we cover the expenses with no income coming in?" he asked.

It's been frustrating for Beesley.

"I'm the chairman of the board, and I feel like I should have some ideas and I don't," he said. "I feel so inadequate."

He's tossed out the idea of a long-term lease for the cafe, but hasn't gotten any support from other board members.

For now, he's simply keeping his fingers crossed, hoping someone steps forward -- especially someone who is willing to keep the grocery operating.

Business so far has been good for the cafe, he said.

"What I'm hearing is the number of meals they're serving a day is getting bigger," Beesley said.