Dillons' stay in Greensburg unclear

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

It's people first, business later for Dillons officials as they sort through what's left of their 40-year-old Greensburg store.

The longtime Kansas grocer is focused on finding resources and other Dillons jobs for the 24 people displaced when Friday's twister damaged the 9,300-square-foot store at 225 E. Kansas.

But soon, the grocery chain with a historic commitment to Kansas' small towns is going to face a rebuilding decision that will be crucial to Greensburg's future.

It's a Catch-22 in Greensburg: People need retailers to be able to live in western Kansas, but those same businesses need people in order to be profitable.

It's too early for officials at Dillons or its parent, Kroger, to make a decision, spokeswoman Meghan Glynn said.

"We want to see how the plans develop for the city," she said.

Dillons has 71 years of history in Greensburg, beginning in 1936 on Main Street before building the Kansas Avenue store in 1967 -- a building that still featured the old company logo.

It was a central part of Greensburg's fabric even after the tornado, when the store's parking lot served as a gathering place.

Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said the chain's commitment to the small Kansas towns where it got its start in the 1920s and '30s will remain. Dillons has 38 stores in central and western Kansas, including Pratt, St. John and Sterling.

But can Dillons afford to rebuild in a community that might shrink as it rebuilds? Rod Bradley, a retired doctor and lifetime Greensburg resident, thinks Dillons is essential to his community.

"Now, whether there will be enough people in town to support it is another question," he said.

Mike Babcock, an economics professor at Kansas State University who has studied small town disaster recovery, agreed with Bradley.

He expects most of the "insured loss" people and businesses to return to Greensburg.

Several of the uninsured may move on, he said, and the size of that group could determine whether Dillons and other businesses can thrive in a rebuilt Greensburg.

"It's a business decision whether Dillons will rebuild or not, but there's no reason at this point to suspect they wouldn't," Babcock said.

"I'm sure that one's an insurable loss, and when they get the proceeds, they'll have to decide whether there's a more profitable place."

If that place isn't Greensburg, it would be a blow to tornado recovery, Babcock said.

"Historically, small towns in western Kansas have been losing their young people," he said.

"The result is an aging population in a lot of small towns around the Midwest. If they don't have a dependable grocery store, it's a big negative. They have to drive 20 miles to a grocery store, and that's bad."

Bradley acknowledged that Dillons will have to be confident that the new Greensburg can support a store.

"A lot is going to depend on the town itself," he said.

"Our mayor and our city manager have said Greensburg will be back. If it can be rebuilt, it will be, and Dillons will really be an important part of that."

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