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Neighbors concerned about effects of Wichita Dillons closings

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 9:58 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, July 10, 2014, at 2:27 p.m.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Health and Wellness Coalition.

Growing up across the street from the angular green-and-brick Dillons store at Harry and Broadway, Amber and Ashlee Kimminau would walk to the store almost daily, for anything from fruit to a quick soda.

The location, along with the Dillons at 13th and Woodlawn, is set to close after 61 years of operation, because it has not performed up to expectations and its location is not conducive to renovations or expansion.

“The assembled fact is there are houses all around here, and they need a Dillons,” Amber Kimminau said. “It’s an oldie, but it’s a good one.”

Neighborhood residents worry that when the stores close July 19, they will become part of a “food desert,” a term for low-income areas more than a mile from the nearest full-service grocery store.

Wichita already has 44 square miles of food desert, according to a survey last year by the Health and Wellness Coalition, a partnership of the Wichita YMCA, city and county government, the Kansas Health Foundation, the Metro Chamber of Commerce and a host of local businesses with an interest in community health.

“One-fourth of our Wichita population lives in a food desert,” said Becky Tuttle, a staff member with the coalition.

She said it’s uncertain whether the closing of the two Dillons stores will expand the food desert or, if it does, by how much.

But it is highly likely that the loss of the two stores will make it more difficult for some in core areas to get access to fruits, vegetables, grain products and lean proteins, the four staple groups that improve individual and community health, she said.

Tuttle said the closures will mean that at least some residents, particularly those who rely on public transportation, will have to go farther to get their groceries and could choose to supplement their diets more often with convenience-store food.

The coalition study found that while nearly half of convenience stores offer fresh fruit – such as apples, bananas and oranges – fewer than 1 in 10 offer fresh vegetables.

Dillons, a division of the grocery giant Kroger Co., did take that into consideration when choosing to close the stores, but it was a business decision that had to be made, said company spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie.

“In all honesty, we have to look at the operations from a business perspective, just as any other retailer would,” she said. “If we have a location that has deteriorating sales and has been underperforming for some time, we have to absorb the costs of that business, of that store, in all areas of our company.”

Dillons won’t provide specifics on just how underperforming the stores were, but the clear trend was that business was moving away from smaller stores toward the bigger supermarkets with wider variety, discounts on gasoline and other amenities.

“With our customers, what we’re seeing from their shopping habits is they’re choosing to shop with us at some of our larger, newly renovated store locations where they can find everything like fresh produce, natural foods and maybe some of the additional amenities like Starbucks or sushi,” Lowrie said.

The Kansas Health Institute recently analyzed community food access as part of a larger study into the city bus system and found many residents struggle to bring home enough healthy food.

“It was particularly true for low-income neighborhoods, because they don’t have alternative modes of transportation to get to the other stores,” said Tatiana Lin, senior analyst and strategy team leader for the institute. “They don’t have additional discretionary funds to pay for gas. It increases their likelihood to rely on convenience stores or Dollar General in the area.”

The loss of the Dillons stores, both of which were on bus routes, could be a further obstacle for people to get the kind of food they need, said Sheena Smith, an analyst who worked with Lin on the study.

Dillons closed four urban stores in Wichita in 2008: 13th and Waco, Central and Oliver, Douglas and Meridian and Lincoln and Hydraulic.

The company kept its store at Douglas and Hillside and built a new and larger store at Harry and Edgemoor that took up some of the slack. The rest of the company’s stores form a more or less ringlike suburban constellation around the urban core.

Longtime south Wichita resident David Bonfiglio said he’s worried his neighborhood Dillons will become another “shuttered store front on neglected South Broadway.”

“This is going to be a huge blow to the neighborhood,” Bonfiglio said.

“It’s one of the most vulnerable areas of Wichita. Many customers here walk to the store, ride their bicycles to the store – now they have miles and miles left to go.”

While there is a Wal-Mart relatively close to the neighborhood – at Pawnee and Broadway, a mile south of the Dillons – the Kimminaus said they fear the corner will go the way of 13th and Waco. Dillons closed its store there in 2008, which “killed everything” in the neighborhood, Ashlee Kimminau said.

“So what if it’s not a super-Dillons?” she said of the Broadway store. “I think it’s just perfect for people around the neighborhood. It feels like they’re taking from the poor.”

Bob Goudy, 79, said he has been going to the Dillons at 13th and Woodlawn for “someteen years.”

Now, he said, he will make arrangements to go to the nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market at 13th and Oliver or the Dillons Marketplace at Central and Rock Road.

“I can see a pattern in the area,” Goudy said. “It was nice to be able to walk here when the weather was nice enough, but it won’t affect me too much.”

Bonfiglio said he hopes the company will reconsider its decision to close the locations.

“I hope Dillons will look at the numbers again and decide that they’re better off serving this community,” he said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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