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Say it isn't so

Sep 13, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

What began as a rumor Mondaymorning became a confirmed piece of very bad news by that afternoon. An anchor Riverton business is being lost.

The owners of the city's big Safeway store announcedMondaythat the store will be closing, most likely in 30-45 days.

The Ranger news staff is doing some reporting on the announcement. Store employees contacted as the news was begin to trickle out said they had been told the planned closure is being blamed on failure to reach a lease agreement between the owners of the building and the owners of the Safeway store chain, which are two different entities.

Later, a statement from a public corporations official said the Riverton Safeway was "an underperforming store."

We don't know enough about the business/landlord relationship to evaluate the first claim, but the second one seems hard to believe. And underperforming store? Safeway, like the competing grocery stores at Smith's and Walmart, is a busy place.

When Kmart shut down last year, taking its grocery aisles with it, the local stores got a boost. And this summer's solar eclipse traffic had the grocery stores practically mobbed.

Safeway has been a Riverton business for more than 70 years and has built three different stores, each bigger than the preceding one. Safeway liked Riverton for decades, and customers reciprocated. Over time, businesses which transact trade with lots of customers become public institutions in much the same way that schools and local government entities do.

When a distant corporate owner decides a store is "underperforming," it gives the local community and customer base nothing to go on. Underperforming by what definition? By how much? In whose judgment?

Is there anything to this landlord lease dispute? Has Safeway done all it can to try to improve local performance? Could it do more? Could the community help?

Is there something to the claim of a dispute with the landlord? Can't it be solved? Is closing the store after all these decades really the only answer?

Few entities are more opaque and unresponsive to inquiry than a big corporation that has decided to close the lid. In the case of Albertson's, which now owns the Safeway chain, some community explanation is advised strongly, the better to help us understand why a store that usually had a full parking lot and lines at every checkout stand, and which has been a cornerstone of the local retail establishment since the start of the Baby Boom, suddenly must close in a market which clearly can support three grocers.

The closure would leave thousands of longtime customers in the lurch, put dozens of people out of work, and create a huge, abandoned store skeleton in the heart of Fremont County's prime business district.

Perhaps such corporate communication is planned. If so, it ought to be scrutinized carefully by the news media, the organized business community, economic developers and local government, all with an eye toward finding some way to keep this from happening.

Losing Safeway would be a terrible shame. Perhaps it is unavoidable - but it's worth a community-wide effort to find out for sure.

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2017-09-24