Carolyn Weaver heads to her car after shopping at the Kroger on South Third St. Her thoughts on the store’s imminent closing next month? “It’s devastating.” (Photo: Lee Eric Smith)

On Feb. 3, Kroger will close two Memphis stores — one near the corner of Lamar and Airways, the other on South Third Street.

A big box retailer leaving a neighborhood in economic decline isn’t new, nor particularly surprising, especially if said big box retailer claims losses of more than $4.7 million at those two stores since 2014.

But given how much residents of Orange Mound or South Memphis rely on those locations for food, prescription drugs and even banking, news of the closings wasn’t just surprising, it was upsetting.

“It’s devastating,” said Carolyn Weaver, who shops at the Third Street Kroger regularly. “A lot of people catch the bus here. I see people walking down the street with grocery bags. It’s going to be devastating for people in this community.”

Also surprising, and even inspiring, is how several citizens, elected officials and religious and community leaders have rapidly mobilized to make sure that surrounding neighborhoods don’t become food deserts. Less than a day after Kroger’s announcement, activists in Orange Mound braved frigid temperatures to make a statement.

“People walk to this location because it’s convenient,” said Orange Mound activist Britney Thornton on Jan. 4 outside the Lamar Avenue Kroger. “It’s easy for me (to go to another Kroger) because I have a car. But it’s not that easy for many people in Orange Mound. That’s who we have to think about — the disenfranchised and not the privileged.”

More than a grocery store

Food options are the most obvious loss to those neighborhoods, but there are other losses too. Many customers in both areas rely on Kroger for their prescriptions.

“They’ve given us 30 days’ notice, so to speak,” said Angela Barksdale of Orange Mound. “It takes 30 days or more, for some of these senior citizens to get their prescriptions transferred.

“Some people have been coming to Kroger all their lives,” she continued. “And you want to shut us down in 30 days? Give us some alternatives. Give us a little more time. Show us compassion and support like we’ve shown you over the past years.”

Residents at either location won’t be without a nearby pharmacy — there’s a Walgreens a few steps away from both Kroger locations.

“But Walgreens, their prescriptions are high,” said Barbara Williams, who shops at the Third Street Kroger. “You come to Kroger, you save a lot (on prescriptions).”

Few alternatives

Kroger announced the closings in a Jan. 4 statement that primarily touted ClickList, its new online grocery ordering service, and a new fuel center on Poplar Avenue. The statement also confirms the closing of a third Kroger in Clarksdale, Miss.

“Closing stores is always a difficult business decision to make,” said Scot Hendricks, president of Kroger’s Delta Division. “We review our store’s performance annually and unfortunately, despite our store team’s best efforts, profits steadily continued to decline at all three stores. We are still committed to serving in the areas we operate, especially our Memphis area stores.”

The statement goes beyond referring customers to other nearby Kroger stores, providing the names and addresses of nearby grocery chains Save-A-Lot and Aldi.

“But the quality (at Save-A-Lot) is nowhere the same,” said Ellen S. Jones, who remembers coming to the Third Street Kroger with her grandmother. “You don’t get many name brands at Save-A-Lot. They have a lot of off-brands. At Kroger, you can get the same name brands you’re used to anywhere.”

Kroger’s statement also said that displaced Kroger employees will be reassigned to other stores — which brings its own concerns. One Third Street Kroger employee who declined to be named will now need to commute to a Kroger on Riverdale — at least 20 minutes away on the expressway. “I hate it,” the employee said of the closing. “I’m eight minutes away from work now.”

Tri-State Bank: “We didn’t ask to leave. We were closed out.”

And then there’s banking. Tri-State Bank of Memphis has operated a branch at the Lamar Avenue Kroger since 1990, a location that has $4.7 million in deposits, said Darius L. Davis, consulting CEO of Tri-State Bank. The announcement came as a surprise to them too.

“I got the official written notice from our landlord, NCBS, about an hour after someone handed me the press release,” said TSB President Jesse L. Turner Jr. “We didn’t ask to leave. We’re being closed out.”

NCBS did not return a call requesting comments for this story.

Davis noted that despite the inconvenience, there are still multiple ways TSB can serve all its customers, including those in Orange Mound. There’s online banking, which allows customers to deposit checks by snapping a photo on their smartphone, and MoneyTower Network ATMs, which can be used without fees — even those without TSB markings.

“And our Whitehaven headquarters is available,” Davis said of TSB’s location on Elvis Presley Boulevard. “We’ve served (Orange Mound) for close to 30 years. We hope the community will continue to give us an opportunity to continue to serve them.”

A happy ending?

The New Tri-State Defender wanted more answers from Kroger. Would they help make prescriptions more accessible to those without cars? Would they assist Kroger employees who now have to commute across town? What was the nature of those losses that added up to $6.3 million across three stores since 2014?

And what responsibility, if any, does Kroger have to lower income neighborhoods, especially when it comes to convenient access to prescriptions and fresh produce?

We emailed those and other questions to Kroger’s management team, who declined to comment further beyond their Jan. 4 statement. “We’ve decided we’re going to stick to the press release,” said Teresa Dickerson, media contact for Kroger’s Delta Division.

Meanwhile, church and civil rights leaders — including the Memphis chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — held a press conference Tuesday to push back against the closings. And on Friday, Jan. 5, Memphis City Council members Edmund Ford Jr. and Jamita Swearengen held a joint press conference to voice their own displeasure with Kroger’s announcement, with Councilman Martavius Jones and Shelby County Commissioner Reginald Milton among those present. With so many citizens mobilized and engaged, Ford said the storefronts may not be vacant for long.

“Since the press conference, we and community leaders have worked diligently to find vendors that can fill the void that Kroger will leave in these areas on Feb. 3,” Ford said in a written statement. “It is to our delight that eight vendors have approached us with the desire and the will to replace Kroger as the community grocery store.

“In fact, one of those vendors would like to not only assume (both) locations … but also keep the Tri-State Bank branch open if financially feasible,” Ford’s statement continued.

Keeping that branch open won’t be quite that simple, TSB’s Davis said.

“Our landlord there is NCBS, not Kroger,” Davis said. “So we would have to discuss (reopening that branch) with our board. We would be renegotiating fresh with NCBS.”

Meanwhile Ford hopes that the various community and civic factions involved can operate in harmony to attract a new grocer.

“We ask elected officials — city and county — as well as the respective communities for their support of the actions that are being done to prevent our neighborhoods from experiencing the effects of food deserts and blight,” Ford’s statement continued.

None of the prospective vendors were named, but the statement also said that a grassroots survey is underway to “ensure input is provided and the neighborhood contains active participants in the process.” The survey should be done by the end of next week, Ford said.

“(We want) the companies of interest (to) know that it is our intent to create a win-win for all parties involved: the corporation and the community,” Ford’s statement concluded. “The goal is to be good, accountable neighbors and consumers to the goods and services the prospective vendors intend to provide.”