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High school opens community grocery store

Saturday, January 31, 2009 | 3:52 p.m. CST

LEETON — Two minutes after the door opened Friday, a retired farmer laid down money for a Hershey bar and two cheese sticks.

And just like that, this little town finally had a grocery store.

Granted, it's not a fancy supermarket. It's no bigger than a two-car garage, it's open only four days a week, and it's in an old bank building — and the bank still uses the vault.

But the 600 or so people in Leeton, about 15 miles south of Warrensburg, are proud of their new store, and indeed they should be. It might be the only one like it in the state, maybe the country.

Leeton High School opened the store, and students will run it. Why? To teach kids practical skills and to save their parents long drives to the market.

In the end, the store just might help save their town.

"I've never heard of any school anywhere doing what we're doing," said agriculture teacher Bonnie Seymour, who is helping the students.

The idea came about last summer when gas prices hit $4 a gallon and economists warned that small towns in America could soon see an exodus because people could no longer afford the commutes to jobs and shopping.

Leeton is exactly that kind of town. The local school district couldn't do anything to bring jobs closer, but it could provide a grocery store, something the town hadn't had for almost 10 years. Leeton has a Casey's General Store, but residents wanted more of a regular grocery.

For that, residents had to drive to Warrensburg or about an equal distance to Clinton.

Those stores, of course, are much bigger than the new enterprise in Leeton, but "I think people around here, like my family, are happy that now they won't have to drive so far and use up gas to get some groceries," Taylor Owens, a junior, said Friday.

The new store is what's known as a school-based enterprise. The idea has been around for years, but most SBEs tend to be on school property and sell things such as school supplies to students.

The Leeton store, called the Bulldog Express, is in the mostly abandoned downtown district.

Two classes were told to make it happen: Seymour's ag business class and Marijayne Manley's entrepreneurship class. The 17 students, including four from Chilhowee High School who take classes at Leeton, will do the ordering, stocking, pricing, counter work and floor sweeping. Pretty much everything but payroll. Yes, they get paid — minimum wage — for hours they work after 3:15 p.m., when school is out.

The store is open from 1:30 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. There are two students to a shift, always with an adult present.

It all started with remodeling the bank.

Senior Melissa McMullin remembers the first time the students entered the run-down building.

"It was old and dirty and smelled really bad," she said Friday from behind the counter.

The school's shop class tore out walls and did much of the heavy work. Students cleaned and painted.

Townspeople joined in, too. John Beck, a member of the school board, drove to Kansas City and brought back shelving from a closed Circuit City.

Coca-Cola donated a couple of coolers. A grocery distributor provided a freezer. The district bought a used cash register online.

The checkout counter does not have a scanner.

"Those are expensive and we've had to be very thrifty," Seymour said.

Along the way the students grew weary, Seymour said.

"But then last week the shelving was up and the counter was in and our first order arrived — canned goods, cereals, paper products — and they started thinking, 'You know, this is really looking like a store.' "

The district funded $20,000 for the project — half to get the building ready and the other half to stock the store.

Manley is pleased the store lacks high-tech gadgets.

"These kids are going to use pencils and spreadsheets, and they're going to learn to make change," she said.

One boy has already seen his world expand. On Friday, he came from the back room with an armload of feminine products and a face full of anguish.

"This is weird," he said.

"You'll be fine," Manley told him.

Resident Jerry McAllister said the store is great because it will save trips out of town.

"I think we're all going to be shopping there," he said Friday in his driveway.

But not for everything. The store has a limited stock and for obvious reasons does not sell beer or cigarettes.

It also has no fresh meat, but Seymour hopes that will change and the store may eventually expand.

Hold on now, said Superintendent Bill Nicely.

"Let's get this thing up and going first," he said Friday. "We want to make sure we break even and that these kids learn some things.

"Those are the two things that we need to have happen here."

 


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