City faces challenges in replacing store
As she played cards Tuesday at the De Soto Senior Center, Wilda Schutlz remembered when De Soto had three grocery stores.
"Now we're not going to have any," she said. "This will be the first time in our history De Soto hasn't had a store."
Morses' Market in De Soto Plaza will apparently close later this week, and it could be a long time before another grocery store opens in De Soto.
De Soto Chamber of Commerce executive director Sara Ritter said she frequently was asked why the city couldn't attract a Price Chopper or other large chain supermarket. The answer, she said, was that with a population of 5,200 De Soto just wasn't big enough.
"When we did the targeted industry study (in 2003), we contacted Price Chopper and asked what it would take to get you in the community. We were told we needed more rooftops. Those chains won't look at a town unless they have from 10,000 to 12,000 people."
Ted Morse, who owns Morse Market with his wife, Marge, and son Jeff, said the family was actively trying to sell the business and the store, but he wasn't optimistic that anything would happen soon.
"You just can't get any interest in De Soto," he said. "There aren't enough rooftops."
Earlier this year, the family explored a deal that would have had them sell the current building on Lexington Avenue and invest that money in building a new store, Morse said. The talks ended because of the asking price for the land on which the new store would be built was significantly higher than its appraised value, he said.
Ritter said she had heard criticism that the chamber and De Soto Economic Development Council hadn't done enough to help the store. Ritter, Chamber President David Moore and EDC chairman Dustin Baker said the chamber and the EDC got the Morses together with developers about a possible new store. The city and the chamber also set up a meeting between Morse and the city's bond council about possible incentives, Ritter said.
Had a plan emerged from the discussions with the developer, Ritter, the chamber and EDC would have supported tax increment financing or other incentives that would have helped it work, they said.
But they said the chamber and EDC never had a plan to support or promote.
"That's the point," Baker said. "We put them in touch with two developers. We got them together with one developer who had an interest in the community. Without a plan, we couldn't go back to the city with what we could do."
If the community wants a grocery store, it would take a concerted joint effort of the city of De Soto, chamber and EDC, Morse said. But again Morse said he wasn't optimistic that would happen. The community just wasn't that proactive, he said.
Ritter, Baker and Moore said they saw the value of such an effort, especially if the community wanted a larger store.
"It's going to take incentives to make a grocery store project work in De Soto," she said.
The first step in developing any plan was to find out if the Morses still had an interest in a store in De Soto.
Again, Morse said that would require the store in the 35-year-old De Soto Plaza be sold.
"We put everything we have in that store," he said. "We invested everything in De Soto."
As for finding a new owner for De Soto Plaza, it has been listed on the chamber's Web site and a database shared with local real estate agents, Ritter said. She had steered several people expressing interest to Morse, Ritter said.
He had talked with three people about the building, Morse said. One was interested in it as a grocery store and the other two were looking at it for manufacturing, he said.
Morse said a grocery store could work in the building if its 20,000-square-foot space was cut in half and another business located in the remaining 10,000 square feet. That would decrease utility bills, insurance, maintenance costs, taxes and other expenses, he said.
"That's a model that will work," he said. "It's difficult to get all that done."
Ritter said she wrote a letter to a high-volume, low-cost retail chain about locating in the Morses' Lexington Avenue building. She never got a reply, Ritter said, probably because the chain was just sold and the new owners stopped all expansion as they reviewed their new portfolio.
The problem in attracting a grocery store points to a larger problem, chamber president Moore said.
"The real problem I see is housing affordability," he said. "We need homes priced at $160,000. All the homes I see being built in De Soto start at around $250,000.
"That could be part of the problem with the store. People who live in those larger homes are going to shop at the Hen Houses."