Last spring, Shopko announced bankruptcy.
The national chain provided everything from household goods to school supplies for families in 13 towns in Wyoming. The news hit remote, rural families in those areas especially hard because other local options were often limited. Local officials worried about the potential loss of significant sales tax revenue.
In response, a proactive small-business community approached Amy Quick, northwest regional director for the Wyoming Business Council, and other local economic developers for guidance.
“This loss was felt hard by small communities throughout the state and things initially looked bleak,” Quick said. “We needed to identify the gaps Shopko would be leaving in our local retail scene and determine what product lines made the most sense for our small-business owners to pursue. We also wanted to find ways to reuse the buildings to ensure they remained a vibrant part of our community.”
The Business Council leveraged its Wyoming Main Street program to bring in Matt Wagner, a national retail industry expert, to visit the four affected communities in the Big Horn Basin as an initial case study. The tours included community listening sessions for shoppers, retailers and local leaders. The Business Council also issued surveys to communities and enlisted the help of the Wyoming Small Business Development Center and Market Research Center, both Business Council partners, to compile community and regional-specific data.
Armed with about 950 survey responses, on-the-ground anecdotal evidence, national trends and local retail analysis, Wagner presented his findings to the whole state through a webinar. About 100 people attended the event, which was also recorded.
The presentation offered retailers sales-capture projections, spending potential analysis, target inventory categories and recommended support programs for local leaders to implement. The plan now serves as a blueprint for other communities to follow.
In the months after the presentation, retailers and local leaders acted swiftly to turn the adversity of a shuttered store into opportunity.
“We don’t want to see stores close, but this circumstance did open new opportunities for entrepreneurs in the Big Horn Basin to step in and really shine,” Quick said.
In Worland, for example, Blair’s Supermarket added large sections of toys, school supplies and more to help fill gaps. Their website even touts baby products like diapers, baby food and teething toys.
Haskells Furniture and Flooring expanded into linens and Brown’s Western Appliance now carries televisions and other electronics. Former Shopko pharmacists capitalized on the opportunity and built the Worland Pharmacy, which opened in the fall of 2019, offering many unique features including a drive-through.
Other new openings include the Black Sheep Boutique with clothing, shoes and a place for art classes and kids’ parties, and Classy Reinventions offers gifts, consignment items, cards, antiques and more to the community.
Washakie County commissioners purchased the Kennedy Ace Hardware building downtown for a new library and expanded ambulance service. That move helped the hardware store owner buy Worland’s former Shopko building and expand into an additional 11,000 square-feet of space.
In Powell, entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to open a variety of shops and boutiques downtown. Commercial vacancy in the heart of the city has plummeted. Similar to Worland, existing merchants like Powell Drug have bolstered their offerings to include items that came up frequently as product gaps in the community visits and surveys – particularly, things like toys and gift items.
Powell Economic Partnership Executive Director Christine Bekes created a map highlighting local shopping outlets, in addition to local places to eat and stay. Maps are available throughout town, offering residents and visitors a better picture of all the opportunities available in the rural community.
In Thermopolis, Howie Samelson, the owner of The Thermopolis Print Zone and Discover Thermopolis, purchased a nearby building to expand his business and add office supplies, party and decoration items, gifts and more.
“Business owners in Thermopolis really felt the need to keep people shopping in town,” Samelson said. “The case-study report underlined an important fact: the closure of Shopko and some other recent retail closures aren’t a result of anything Thermopolis or its residents are doing wrong. Thermopolis isn’t dying, and we need to get that negativity out.”
Locally owned small businesses pay for local services like marketing, accounting, design and supplies. That means more money – about 58 percent more, according to Civic Economics – stays in the community.
“By spreading new product lines across a diverse set of local businesses, the Big Horn Basin is better protected against future retail closures, and more spending is remaining in the community where it can build long-term wealth,” said Linda Klinck, the Business Council’s Wyoming Main Street program manager.
Local businesses also take the shape of their community’s character, creating a unique place that serves to draw new residents and visitors. And local small-business owners donate to little league teams, school fundraisers and other local causes.
In the long term, these examples of small-business owners who listened carefully to local customers and acted quickly to meet those demands can lead to a robust, regional entrepreneurial ecosystem that builds a pipeline and sustainable support system for new business creation.
Wyoming’s approach to rural retail has caught the attention of community leaders on a national scale. Quick said she has been approached by Nebraska Main Street and Community Extension experts asking how they could implement a similar program. The National Main Street Center highlighted Wyoming’s efforts through its newsletter.
“I’m still getting great feedback on the final report, the best practices we crafted and the results from the hard work done by us, local leaders and Big Horn Basin merchants,” Quick said. “The work’s not over, though. This is just the beginning of a longer-term approach to building capacity in rural communities and enhanced support for entrepreneurs statewide.”