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Bethel's new showplace grocery store to close Friday

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 9, 2015

BETHEL -- The new Swanson's showcase store here is closing Friday less than nine months after it opened, a blow to shoppers, its 80 employees and the city's tax base.

Shoppers swarmed the grocery and department store Monday after word spread by text message, phone, email and KYUK radio about an unadvertised half-price sale that covered its entire inventory.

Lines stretched from one end of the store to the other and took three hours to get through during the peak. Carts -- for shoppers who could find one -- were piled high with toilet paper and Crisco, steaks and oranges, sodas and chips. By midafternoon, the snack food aisle was nearly bare. Shoppers grabbed televisions and little toys, fabric and winter boots. It was Black Monday in Bethel.

"It's foolish for anyone not to take advantage of this. But it's a very sad thing to see happen," said Ken Eggleston, who up grew in McGrath and has lived in Bethel off and on since 1954. His cart included a half-price box of frozen crab.

Store manager Casey Cruz said he was told Monday morning by the corporate office for Omni Enterprises Inc. that the store would be closing and everything needed to go. Omni, an employee-owned company, ran Swanson's and still is running other stores in rural Alaska. For now, at least, the Swanson's hardware store, lumberyard, furniture store, convenience store and snowmachine shop are staying open in Bethel, he said.

"It's just this store," Cruz said.

Why did the store close so soon after opening? Cruz referred questions on that to the corporate office. Omni President Russ Lindsay didn't return a phone message Monday. His office referred questions to Bethel Native Corp.

The new $20 million building is owned by Bethel Native Corp., whose chief executive, Ana Hoffman, referred questions back to Omni.

Omni had to make lease payments both to BNC as well as to Sea Lion Corp., the village corporation for Hooper Bay, which bought the old store and other retail spaces, then leased them back to Omni.

"They are having problems by having moved to the new building," said Myron Naneng, president of both Sea Lion and the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents.

The movie theater within the retail complex -- called Kipusvik, Yup'ik for "place to buy things" -- is run by Bethel Native Corp. and will remain open, said manager Jennessy Andrew of Suurvik Cinema. She was working Monday on an effort to take over the concessions from Swanson's.

Another store could move into Bethel Native Corp.'s still-new space, with its specially designed produce bins and energy-efficient freezers, but nothing has been announced.

The state Department of Labor and Workforce Development is sending a job team to Bethel on Wednesday to help the 80-odd employees with unemployment benefits, resume writing and other services, Cruz said.

Omni hasn't announced any severance package for employees, said Cruz, who has worked for the company nine years, including the last year in Bethel. He said he will probably have to leave Alaska to find work.

Bethel's Janet Hoffman has worked at Swanson's since 1971 and is the longtime manager for clothing, fabric and shoes. She was busy Monday with a long line of deal-seeking customers in the upstairs clothing department.

"It's unbelievable after all these years," Hoffman said as she worked. "It's a shame it's come to this. Bethel needs two stores."

About 6,300 people live in Bethel, but it's also a hub community for dozens of surrounding villages. Many of Monday's shoppers were getting goods packed in big white boxes to ship home.

Bethel's other main grocery store, the AC Value Center, is owned by The North West Company Inc., a Canadian firm publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

When the new Swanson's was being built to replace the old, worn-out space, the AC store got a makeover too. The two stores engaged in price battles, with regular sales. The new Swanson's was across the street from Bethel's biggest employer, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and closer to the airport. But its location was out of the way for most Bethel neighborhoods.

Efforts to reach officials with Alaska Commercial Co. -- the retail company over AC stores -- on Monday were unsuccessful.

Customers at the Swanson's sale said they were worried that the AC store is poised to raise its prices.

"That's the question everybody is asking," shopper Clarence Daniel said.

The closure of Swanson's will hurt Bethel's tax base, said City Council member Mark Springer. The city relies heavily on its 6 percent sales tax. The new Swanson's was an enjoyable shopping experience with attractive and well-organized space -- even a dedicated pasta aisle -- and helpful staff members, he said. But it had a reputation -- whether justified or not -- of being more expensive than AC, Springer said.

Some residents may not go back to AC, which is in Bethel's town center and where Springer said he too frequently encountered inebriates in the store entry.

"There's no drunks on the front porch at Amazon," he said, referring to the online retailer.

On Facebook, Bethel residents have been talking for weeks about signs of trouble at Swanson's. It stopped accepting in-store charges effective March 1. Some shelves in its famed Costco aisle with Kirkland-brand foods were bare by Saturday. Before Monday's big sale, some dairy items were half-price -- and past their expiration date.

On Monday, the atmosphere was bittersweet. All of Bethel seemed to be in the store. The parking lot was overflowing. A steady stream of cabs brought more customers.

Clarence Daniel said when he and his wife, Julia, got to Swanson's around 12:30 p.m., there weren't any carts so he grabbed a basket.

"I was holding a baby with one arm and the basket with the other," Daniel said.

Sheila and Thomas Carl, who live upriver in Akiak, heard about the sale on the radio and drove by truck on the frozen Kuskokwim River to take advantage of it. They were stocking up on everything: Folgers, Crisco, Cool Whip and lots of bulk items. They also were carting home a 50-inch television for Sheila's brother.

Janet Erik and her family live in Chefornak but were in Bethel for the small-schools basketball tournament that ended Saturday. She was planning to shop a little in the hub anyway but when she got a text about the sale, she checked it out. She ended up with an overloaded cart that included paper towels, big boxes of Minute rice and Easter egg dye.

Some customers said they saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars.

Swanson's is set to close for good at 9 p.m. Friday.