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Closing convenience stores leave few options for north Casper residents

April 10, 2017 GMT

CASPER — Over the years, the small grocery stores and shops that served north Casper shuttered. Strip mall churches and thrift shops took their place.

This spring, the only two neighborhood stores that offered basic groceries are closing, leaving many residents and nonprofit officials worried that the historic working-class neighborhood will become a “food desert.”

The Loaf ’N Jug on North Mckinley Street has already closed. The north Center Street location will close April 20, a manager said.

Locals who could walk a few blocks to grab a jug of milk, a loaf of bread or some lunch meat are not sure what to do instead, and they’re tired of having fewer and fewer options.

“Community-wise, we don’t have much down here. We really don’t,” said Tom Davenport, a two-decade resident who lives at the end of K Street. “Everything has bounced out of here.”

‘Left in the dust’

North Casper is on the other side of the tracks, literally, from downtown. It’s the oldest neighborhood in the city and home to some of its poorest families.

In some ways, the 15-block enclave is closed off from the rest of town. The North Platte River marks the northern border and Interstate 25 the southern edge. Access is limited to three through streets that cross the railroad tracks and tunnel beneath the highway into downtown Casper.

The neighborhood has been on the decline for years as city subdivisions, businesses and schools sprawled east, south and west. Chain stores like Target and Wal-Mart are a 10-minute drive. That’s gas and mileage that some people can’t afford. Others don’t have access to a car, Davenport said.

The convenience store closures may seem minor, but they are the latest in a number of changes that have marked the neighborhood recently.

Roosevelt High School, visible from Davenport’s front lawn, moved to a large new facility in the southwest corner of town this year, taking with it more than 100 teenagers whom Davenport used to see plod down to the Loaf ’N Jug on their lunch hours and free periods.

Another school, Lincoln Elementary, moved six blocks east, closer to Beverly Street, a busy thoroughfare that connects the old neighborhood to the rest of Casper.

There are gas stations on Center Street, just a block south of the closing Loaf ’N Jug. But they don’t have groceries, Davenport said. They have sodas and snacks, not the basics.

“Food desert” is an official designation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. North Casper and the neighboring Old Yellowstone District are the only areas in the city with the label.

With a number of low-income residents, food access is a real issue in the neighborhood. Loaf ’N Jug accepted SNAP benefits, from the federal food assistance program, said Jamie Purcell, director of Food for Thought, a nonprofit based in north Casper that works to decrease food poverty. The organization holds farmers markets year-round.

The closings make a difficult situation harder, she said.

“It’s really unfortunate, and it’s really frustrating,” she said. “Clearly Loaf ’N Jug is a business and making business decisions, but oftentimes when that happens there are people that get left in the dust because they weren’t bringing enough to the table.”

Corporate headquarters for Loaf ’N Jug could not be reached by press time.

Waiting for a replacement

Davenport, the K Street resident, said he understands that economics guide the closures, but it doesn’t make it easier. People shop at those stores, and they need those stores. He appealed to the Casper City Council, but they can’t do anything about private business, he said.

Councilman Jesse Morgan said maybe the absence of those stores will open the market for a competitor to serve the neighborhood. Though many see the area as struggling, the new elementary school, the new Boys and Girls Club and the large city park, all on the east side of the neighborhood, show the potential for growth, he said.

Purcell hopes that’s the case as well.

North Casper is the city’s best-kept secret, she said. And sooner rather than later it will experience revitalization due to its proximity to downtown and its history, she said.

For now, people like Davenport can’t do more than watch the changes and count their losses. He was the first customer when the Loaf ’N Jug near his house opened. His name was written on a dollar bill taped to the register. The workers knew him by name, and he knew them.

Davenport has made it a personal mission to spread the word that the store closures matter and that north Casper needs a replacement.

The area is home to thousands of people, with many elderly residents who have lived there for years, he said. It’s as if the city is moving ahead, with one portion left behind.

“It’s all moved … bigger and better, more corporations, not private people,” Davenport said. “It’s going to hurt north Casper really bad.”