Rural communities in certain parts of the country are bleeding population. It's a grim reality in eastern and southern Arkansas. People leave for different reasons: employment, education, family, etc. But one of the quickest killers for a town is losing its grocery store.
People need a place to buy groceries like they need water piped into their homes or electricity to run their heaters. Yet grocery stores are private enterprises like any other business. So what's a town to do when its privately-owned grocery store calls it quits?
One rural Florida town ran into that very predicament. Baldwin's IGA shut down in 2018. The town was too small for a Walmart, and raising property taxes to provide an incentive to lure in another business was out of the question, or so The Washington Post reported.
So the city opened a grocery store.
"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, [Mayor Sean] 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."
As a general rule, we're not big fans of government getting into things that should be run by the private sector. But in this instance, why not? In such a small town, if the people don't think that is a wise use of their tax dollars, surely they will let the mayor know. Besides, they told the press that it wasn't easy for the town's older folks to drive miles away to Jacksonville for shopping.
(The Washington Post's article said there's a Dollar General in town--where isn't there a Dollar General?--but those places don't typically carry produce and meat. Man cannot live by canned goods alone.)
The city says customers go into the store, shop for the products they need, pay for them and leave--just like a normal grocery store. The only difference is the money spent goes right back into the store, if not the city itself.
"We take the water out of the ground and we pump it to your house and charge you," the mayor told The Post. "So what's the difference with a grocery store?"
Sure, some could make the argument that water, like electricity, is a utility. And in many areas the government is in charge of distributing those things to tax-paying citizens, just like it's charged with providing teachers and police officers.
The important detail here is the town of Baldwin had its back against the wall. In such dire circumstances where a community clearly needs something, arguing about whether this qualifies as "socialism" is a waste of time. It is, after all, the government's job to provide things private citizens cannot provide for themselves. That's why We the People pay taxes, for roads, firefighters, trash pickup, etc.
One key advantage this provides? The municipal grocery store can more easily negotiate with local farmers, ranchers and fishers to provide locally grown produce and meat. Thus creating another business opportunity for a small farm or ranch to get its products in front of customers.
With the increased business, those local farms and ranches might grow, hire more local workers and . . . free market the town into better success.
Editorial on 12/02/2019