For more than 10 years, residents and ranch families living in and around Cody, NE – population 154 – had to drive 55 miles west to Gordon or 38 miles east to Valentine to buy groceries as basic as milk and bread. That changed this spring when the Circle C Market opened across Highway 20 from Lancaster Livestock Supply.
Conceived nearly five years ago by the school board’s public relations committee as a way to bolster enrollment, the market is a community partnership involving a student steering committee, Cowboy GRIT, Inc. (Growing, Revitalizing, Investing, Teamwork); the Village of Cody; Cody-Kilgore Unified Schools; local volunteers; and donors. Cody-Kilgore students of all ages have been involved with the project since the inception. Pre-K through 12 enrollment at the close of the 2012-2013 school year was 127 students.
The vision of Cody-Kilgore teachers Tracee Ford and Stacey Adamson, the market has provided learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom. The student body studied entrepreneurship; applied and interviewed for committee positions; conducted research; wrote a business plan; helped with the building construction; selected and order the inventory; stocked shelves and coolers; conducted fund-raisers; volunteered; and applied and interviewed for paid positions. They worked in cooperation with a variety of agencies and entities including the Students in Free Enterprise Team from the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which helped with the business plan.
Once the idea of the creating a student-run grocery store was approved, the Center for Rural Affairs wrote a Rural Business Enterprise Grant. As initially conceived, the market was to be a small store within an existing establishment. When that fell through, the decision was made to build a new facility on land owned by Nebraska State Game and Parks. The students negotiated a 99-year lease for the property.
The Village of Cody board applied for and received a grant to build a 3,300-sq. ft. straw-bale building to accommodate the store. An area farmer donated 30,000 pounds of rye straw in big round bales that were re-baled into 735 small square bales to fit within the supporting framework and roof. Community volunteers and students helped in all facets of the construction, including coating the bales inside and out with cement stucco. The straw and volunteer labor was cost-effective, energy efficient, and yielded a significant return in community pride.
The Cody-Kilgore High School homecoming dance was held in the partially finished building, and when the first delivery truck pulled up to the market at 6:45 a.m. on March 22, 2013, student volunteers were on hand to unload it in 30 minutes. The $35,000 inventory was stocked by volunteers and opened for business on April 29. Ribbon-cutting and grand-opening ceremonies were held May 24, 2013, in connection with the annual Circle C Days, from which the name of the market was taken.
Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman was on hand for the festivities and helped the school recognize those involved in the project. Speaking to a crowd gathered in the refurbished theater, Heineman said, “If ever there was a project that represents a community, it’s this. I am here to celebrate with you.” Continuing, he said, “Young people in small communities are able to participate in everything. It makes them well-rounded individuals with ethics and integrity. I think about the students involved with this project, their can-do attitude, and their firsthand experiences in economics and entrepreneurship. It is truly remarkable.”
J.T. Adamson, who just completed his freshman year at Cody-Kilgore, serves as the treasurer of Cowboy GRIT. Among other things, he’s responsible for keeping the market’s books, tracking grant monies, and cosigning checks. And, he’s learning valuable life lessons. “You’ve got to be particular. You can’t slack off. You have to stay on top of things,” Adamson said. “I would like to run my own ranch, which is a business. I’m learning hard lessons now that will help me with my own finances.”
Chelsea Luthy, a Cody-Kilgore alumni and founding GRIT member, attended the grand opening. She’s nearly finished with her agri-business/entrepreneur degree and credits the project for helping her decide on a career. Now married, Chelsea’s husband is working with her father, Jerry Fullerton, on her family’s ag operation south of town. The Fullertons donated the straw used in the building, which the sign out front proclaims as “Nebraska’s Only Straw Bale Supermarket.”
Inside, lettering on the wall above the produce cooler reads “It’s more than a store. It’s our future.” GRIT Executive Director Mary Van Winkle said the tag line was put there to remind customers that there’s more to consider when shopping than prices. “We’re teaching leadership and teamwork. Entrepreneurship has always been a goal. That’s why we have a classroom in the building.”
While there’s a coffee corner and heat-and-eat sandwiches available for lunch-on-the-go, there’s also a respectable selection of frozen foods and household goods. Van Winkle noted, “We’re not a convenience store, we’re a full-fledged grocery store with two brands to choose from in most instances.”
A planning survey showed overwhelmingly that people wanted produce in addition to milk and bread. The Circle C has all of that, including bananas, which the students learned are the most-purchased grocery item. Stop by the Circle C Market if you’re passing through the Nebraska Sandhills. They would love to sell you some bananas.
NOTE: The Circle C Market is profiled in a video produced by Nebraska Loves Public Schools: http://nelovesps.org/story?TN=PROJECT-20120910011012