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Struggling South Dakota small-town grocery stores could soon close

The city of Tripp's water tower. (Forum News Service file photo)

SCOTLAND/TRIPP/TYNDALL, S.D. — Three South Dakota small-town grocery stores that closed and were revived earlier this year, could soon be closed again.

Corner Grocery stores in Scotland, Tripp and Tyndall all closed in mid-March, but were reopened as CashSmart businesses by Easter thanks to R.F. Buche.

But Buche, president of G.F. Buche Co. said the stores are losing money each week, and "unfortunately, we just can't do that forever."

"When Corner Grocery closed its doors, it was not only devastating to the communities but it was a tough pill for me to swallow," said Buche, who has owned the buildings and land since 2014. "Not just moneywise, but emotionally. Not only was this situation a huge blow to the Buche Company financially, but I felt like I let down the communities, the team I left behind, the current Buche Company team and my family ... it was certainly devastating."

To remain in business, Buche said each store needs its current customers to double what they are spending or the customer count needs to double. If those needs fail by the end of 2017, the stores will likely close.

Buche said Tripp will lose $18,000 in sales tax revenue and seven jobs will be lost if its grocery store closes. In Scotland about $20,000 would be lost in sales tax revenue and 10 jobs would be eliminated; and in Tyndall, eight jobs would be lost, along with $20,000 in sales tax revenue. And in each town, Buche said, it's inevitable that property values would decrease.

"I pray that one of those two things can happen before the end of the year. I am optimistic. I am hoping that by being upfront and honest about the situation to the (communities), things can turn around because if we have to close, it's not good for (the communities)," Buche said.

Despite optimism, the history of the three stores isn't promising.

From purchase in 2014 to May 2016, Buche foods was unprofitable, which is why he sold the locations to Mark and Pam Mora. The Moras operated the stores until March 2017, when Buche again stepped in to save the town's only grocery stores.

Buche's suppliers and bank resisted the move, but he was able to convince them the stores would break even.

But that hasn't been the case.

In September, Buche ordered customer surveys, which showed 96 percent of customers felt prices are competitive.

"As strange as it sounds, I was hoping to find something majorly wrong with the store so we can fix it, but unfortunately that didn't happen," Buche said. "If I knew how to double the sales I would, but I don't."

Scotland Economic Development Board Member and former owner of the Scotland and Tyndall stores Greg Gemar declined to comment on the situation, aside from urging regional residents to take advantage of amenities in their towns.

"Small communities and all communities, I think they just need to understand if we support what we have, they will succeed," Gemar said. "If we don't, they won't and we'll be without."