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Former Alaska senator’s company opens Utqiagvik grocery store with aim to lower prices

People walk on Stevenson Street in Utqiagvik on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN)

A former U.S. senator who has been frustrated by the high prices of groceries in rural Alaska has opened a store with a goal of making food more affordable.

A company run by Mark Begich assumed management of a grocery store in Utqiagvik on the North Slope, Alaska's Energy Desk reported Tuesday.

Expensive groceries in rural Alaska are often inescapable because of the need for air or boat deliveries to villages off the road system.

The former Democratic lawmaker, who lost a bid for governor last year, said Stuaqpak Inc. plans to offer lower prices and better products. Stuaqpak also aims to be more accountable to residents than competitor North West Co., a publicly traded Canadian corporation, Begich said.

"We think we are doing something that is transformational to rural Alaska on a basic issue, which is survival on a food product that can be affordable," Begich said.

Stuaqpak is working with a wholesaler, JB Gottstein, that Begich said will allow sales of basic goods at lower prices. If the model works, it could expand to other rural Alaska communities, he said.

North West subsidiary Alaska Commercial Co., former operator of the Stuaqpak location, has already reopened in a different spot in the town of 4,500 people. Alaska Commercial has 33 Alaska locations, and nearly all have competition, general manager Walt Pickett said.

"We do everything in our power to minimize costs," Pickett said. "And at the end of the day it's just an expensive effort to move product into these remote communities."

Former longtime Utqiagvik resident Elise Patkotak said people there are taking a “wait-and-see” approach to Begich’s venture.