News hit this last weekend that the Kroger in Walnut Hills could be closing by the end of the year. This could be devastating to much of the community as it is the only major grocery store between Clifton and Hyde Park. There are many in our community who do not have cars and would have to hop on a bus in order to get groceries. After chewing on this for a few days, I have some observations to share. Observation 1: I've only been shopping at that Kroger a few times, and never for more that a couple items [we do our regular grocery shopping at the Biggs in Hyde Park]. We have chosen not to shop at our local Kroger. In my opinion, the Walnut Hills location is their worst store in the tri-state area. The food is never as fresh and the prices are higher than other stores. While all around the city [including Price Hill and Over-the-Rhine] they've attempted to fix up their stores, this location remains virtually untouched for twenty years. It is my understanding is that the Kroger Co. had no desire for a Walnut Hills location but was "guilted" into it in the early 1980's.
Observation 2: Kroger complains that the Walnut Hills location struggles to turn a profit. One of the reasons they cite is current sales. I find this interesting in light of the influx of people moving into the area. I'm convinced that there are more people living in the community than there were even five years ago, and people with higher incomes. You have to wonder, with more people moving in, why Kroger would now decide to close that store. It seems they could be poised to make even more profits. Which brings me to . . .
Observation 3: Another reason for shutting down the store is that Kroger does not own the Walnut Hills building. The Enquirer article linked above quotes one Kroger executive saying, "Because we lease the building and also pay rent on the land, our monthly rent in Walnut Hills is significantly higher than in similar-size stores in comparable locations." This is the aspect that is stressed the most in the article, with Kroger saying a lease renegotiation is critical to them staying in the neighborhood.
All this leads me to my conclusions:
Conclusion 1: Kroger understands how important this store is to the community. In a few weeks the community council will meet again and I'm sure this issue will be at the top of the agenda. I've already heard that some local churches might get involved to advocate Kroger staying. Voices will be raised, public officials will be contacted, and the company will answer back: talk to our landlord about lowering rent and we'll consider it.
Conclusion 2: That landlord, the suburban Cincinnati-based Shawnee Investments [about whom I could find nothing online] has no huge stake in the neighborhood and doesn't need Kroger as a tenant. If they left, there would probably be someone else who would want that space/land. I would think someone would be interested in buying a good chunk of Peebles' Corner to develop it. Basically, the land is probably worth more than the rent they get from Kroger anyway. So even if it closed, Shawnee Investments would be fine. So I finally arrive at . . .
Ultimate Conclusion: Kroger is actually making a power play for the city to step up and give them funds for them to maintain the Walnut Hills location. Whether it means a remodeling or just a dirt cheap lease, they're going to work the system for all it's worth. They'll watch local community leaders work their butts off to try to get Kroger a better deal and they'll reap the rewards. And they'll do their best to avoid negative PR by saying they couldn't afford it.*
Now I'm not saying this is anti-American. Kroger is a business and they have an obligation to shareholders to be profitable. But I am saying that it's rather sleazy trying to use a community in this way. The Greater Cincinnati area helped make Kroger what it is. Barney Kroger recognized this and invested his earned wealth back into this city. But now the corporation is no longer a family/local company and will do whatever it takes to get whatever they want [five years ago they threatened to leave the city if they didn't finance their downtown parking garage]. And if they get what they want here, it will be tax-payers who pay for it.
And using a bunch of people who really can't afford to shop anywhere else as bargaining chips is B.S.
So we'll monitor the situation and see what we can do to get involved. We'll even contemplate if it would be appropriate for Echo to get involved. I say "contemplate" because it's not a given; it's an ethical minefield, really. Do you promote/encourage corporate greed to help your community? Even though this is a serious situation, Walnut Hills will survive. But it would severely alter the community's make-up, perhaps driving even more lower-class folk away.
And that, by the way, is yet another reason I shop at Biggs.
*Kroger stock today is going for about $26 a share. That's almost double of what it was five years ago, the results of steady improvement. So the company is still definitely making money.