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Kodiak's struggling downtown loses iconic grocery store

Michelle Theriault Boots

The Alaska Commercial Co., an iconic operator of general stores supplying everything from snowmachines to produce in rural Alaska, will close its Kodiak grocery store this month, the company said Tuesday.

Food for Less supplied downtown Kodiak with groceries, furniture and clothing for 20 years. When it closes June 28, the grocery store nearest downtown -- a home base for fishing crews staying at the harbor, seafood processing workers and some of the island's lowest-income residents-- will be 2 miles down a busy road. Fifteen workers will lose their jobs when Food for Less closes.

While Food for Less is the only large, full-service grocery downtown, there is a smaller health foods store, Cactus Flats Natural Foods, on the same street.

The store is closing because it is no longer profitable, said Walter Pickett, vice president and general manager for ACC. The company had been looking for a buyer for the Kodiak location for years.

The Kodiak Area Native Association has purchased the Food for Less building, on Rezanof Drive. It's not clear what will happen at the location.

The Alaska Commercial Co. has a history running village stores in Alaska that dates back 140 years. Today, it is owned by a Canadian parent company and runs 33 "AC stores" in communities from Bethel to Sitka.

The company is the largest retailer in rural Alaska and the only retailer in some communities, such as St. Paul, Pickett said. In about half of the company's Alaska locations, the AC store has a local competitor, he said.

In general, AC stores are doing healthy business and are more likely to expand than face further closures, he said. But the Kodiak location faced stiff competition from Safeway, Wal-Mart and the U.S. Coast Guard commissary.

"Closing the store was definitely based on the economics of the community," Pickett said. "I wouldn't say it was just because of the Wal-Mart or Safeway. It was a combination of events, and location was one of them."

Limited parking near the store and an up-and-down economy tied to fishing also contributed to the decision, he said.

To some on the island, the closure is another blow to an already struggling downtown.

"The loss of Food for Less is indicative of a larger issue," said Marnie Leist, a resident of downtown Kodiak who works for a local museum.

Kodiak can be a tough place to survive, she said.

Plenty of people on Kodiak, including seasonal fish processing workers, don't have cars, Leist said. Kodiak has the highest rental housing prices in the state and high food prices too. She'll miss the Food for Less sidewalk produce sales, when pallets of mangoes, papayas and strawberries would be flown in and sold to eager residents.

And now, Leist said, "the entire community is pretty much beholden to Safeway."

"For me, Food for Less closing means an even harder time in a hard-to-live-in town," she said.

This year, a city "downtown revitalization" committee convened to explore reasons why "fewer Kodiak residents consider downtown as a primary center for living, leisure and business."

Short-term priorities identified by the committee included cracking down on littering, cleaning up graffiti, beautifying parks and developing a map of "community paths" to draw people downtown.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.


By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
mtheriault@adn.com