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‘A devastating loss’: Clay County residents lose their only grocery store

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This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight.

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CLAY, WV — Lucy Cruickshanks walked into Small Town Market and headed straight to the counter to greet the store’s owners.

“We really depended on you a lot,” she told Sarah Williams one afternoon in late August, as her husband toured their 1-year-old grandson around the store. Cruickshanks, who lives in nearby Maysel, has known Williams and her husband BJ since they were kids.

“Until you all came, there was nothing in Clay,” she said. “You couldn’t get a head of cabbage, you couldn’t get tomatoes, or any kind of vegetable.”

Now, Clay County is back to not having a dedicated grocery store or fresh foods market. After three and a half years of running Small Town Market, the Williamses closed their store permanently on Sept. 1. 

Earlier this year, Mountain State Spotlight reported that Small Town Market, like other rural independent grocery stores in West Virginia, faced fiscal challenges that put it in danger of going out of business. Without financial support from county or state governments, experts said it was likely that these types of stores would cease to exist, leaving many of the state’s rural communities without access to healthy foods.

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Small Town Market didn’t receive any financial help. Instead, its struggle to be profitable has only increased since this winter, culminating in its closure.

“It just sucks,” Sarah Williams said. “You put everything you possibly can into it, and it just isn’t enough.”

An unsustainable environment for fresh foods

When the Williamses opened Small Town Market in 2020, it was a cause for celebration. Over the prior decade, Clay County had lost multiple chain supermarkets and residents struggled to find nutritious food options in the area.

The Williamses decided to fill that void and built a small grocery store in their hometown. Sarah Williams was even named one of WV Living’s 2020 Wonder Women for her efforts.

“We missed vacations, missed sporting events,” she said. “Late nights and in here seven days a week.”

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For a while, the store turned a profit. BJ Williams said federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provisions from the COVID-19 pandemic gave some folks in the county money to spend on Small Town Market’s produce and meats.

But when those funds slowly started to go away earlier this year, the small business struggled. Despite previous legislative proposals to create a state office to help counties support fresh food stores like Small Town Market, lawmakers didn’t pass bills to improve food access in rural areas. Gov. Jim Justice did announce a $10 million fund to support food banks, but nothing to keep places like Small Town Market from disappearing.

“The county school board makes sure that children can access public education,” said Joshua Lohnes, the director of the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab. “Is there a role for counties to ensure that residents can access food?”

Meanwhile, the federal government continued to roll back the COVID-19 SNAP provisions. From February 2023 to June 2023, more than 16,000 state households lost their food assistance benefits. More residents are expected to lose SNAP benefits in the coming months, as the state will soon require additional qualifications for families to receive the assistance.

Already, SNAP losses have been felt deeply by both West Virginia families and Small Town Market.

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“We’re 50% behind last year just in EBT sales,” said BJ Williams, referring to SNAP benefits. “It’s hard to make it in a town like this.”

With that hit to their customer base, the Williamses knew their store was at a crisis point. This summer, they decided closing was their only option. 

Although a couple of gas stations in Clay County sell a very limited variety of produce and protein, residents think these options cannot fill the hole that’s left by the market.

“BJ and Sarah, they gave their all,” said Tom Mills, a Wallback resident who went to Small Town Market regularly. “They really added a great value to the community. To me, it’s a devastating loss.”

‘Shooting yourself in the foot’

Although their brick and mortar operations closed, the Williamses will try to keep selling fresh fruits and vegetables in their community. They just built greenhouses at their home in Clay to grow produce throughout the entire year. The Williamses plan to sporadically sell excess produce at a pop-up farm stand, but it won’t be nearly as reliable as Small Town Market.

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“There’s gonna be some growing pains there because I’ve never grown through the winter before,” said BJ Williams. “But hopefully I’m able to get it all under control, and I’m able to provide at least to some of the people around here.”

In the meantime, Clay County will have to wrestle with how its residents can get healthy foods. Those discussions will happen as the state simultaneously aims to build up the tourism industry in the area. 

To Cruickshanks, the Maysel resident, any plans for Clay to increase tourism will be limited if county and state leaders don’t make it possible for places like Small Town Market to survive.

“You’re shooting yourself in the foot by trying to get tourism if you don’t supply other things there,” she said. 

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ALLEN SIEGLER

allensiegler@mountainstatespotlight.org

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

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Economy

West Virginia Delegation Urges Disaster Declaration from White House, FEMA

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Representatives Carol Miller (R-WV) and Alex Mooney (R-WV) as well as Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region III Administrator Maryann Tierney to approve the State of West Virginia’s appeal for a disaster declaration. Residential areas in Boone, Calhoun, Clay, Harrison and Kanawha counties have experienced great damage due to heavy rains and flooding in late August.

On the damage caused by flooding in Boone, Calhoun, Clay, Harrison and Kanawha Counties:

As members of the West Virginia Congressional Delegation, we write in support of Governor Jim Justice’s appeal request for a major disaster declaration for the State of West Virginia after severe and numerous storms washed through our State causing widespread damage. Heavy rains caused damages by flooding, landslides, and mudslides in 5 counties throughout central and southern West Virginia from August 28, 2023 to August 30, 2023.

Persistent rains resulted in major flooding events in Boone, Calhoun, Clay, Harrison and Kanawha Counties. As the heavy downpour of rains fell, areas surrounding rivers, creeks and small streams were unable to absorb the excess precipitation causing flooding and residential damage. 

On a request for a major disaster declaration to access federal disaster aid:

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To access federal disaster aid, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice has made an appeal request for a major disaster declaration for the State of West Virginia, submitted October 25, 2023, under the provisions of Section 401 of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 5121-5208 (Stafford Act). We respectfully ask that you carefully review the request that specifically outlines Individual Assistance for Boone, Calhoun, Clay, Harrison, and Kanawha Counties as well as Hazard Mitigation statewide.

We applaud the tireless dedication of our State and local first responders, as well as the invaluable contributions of our neighbors and volunteers. Nevertheless, the demand for aid remains substantial, and we urge you to do everything in your power to make sure that our communities have the federal support they need to rebuild and recover. Therefore, we kindly request that you thoroughly consider the State of West Virginia’s appeal for a major disaster declaration to address the enduring challenges our communities are facing.

Read the full press release here.

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Economy

Unemployment Rate Rises, Economy Tumbles Amid Fears of Recession

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WASHINGTON – The unemployment rate inched up to 3.9% this month, according to the U.S Labor Department as fears of a coming recession start to sink in.

Job losses in manufacturing, warehousing and transportation were the biggest contributors to the spike. And to make matters worse, inflation does not seem to be slowing as initially predicted.

Americans are spending more but buying less.

And bankruptcies are skyrocketing across the board.

According to the U.S. Court systems filings (ZeroHedge), total bankruptcy filings for the nation rose by 13% in 2023, with 433,658 cases.  Corporate bankruptcies increased by 30% this year with 17,051 cases.  Bankruptcies fell sharply in 2020 as the covid pandemic precipitated the $8 trillion+ stimulus package.  Helicopter money and PPP loans stalled the advance of a growing trend of economic decline in the US, but helped trigger the stagflation crisis as a consequence.  Despite the massive fiat money injection, the bankruptcy train is gaining momentum once again.   

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Many economists believe a recession is looming, if not here.

And some experts believe the latest rise in unemployment has triggered the Sahm Rule which has “proven to be reliable predictor of recessions in the past.”

The rule, hatched by former Federal Reserve economist and now Bloomberg columnist Claudia Sahm, posits the start of a recession when the three-month moving average of the unemployment rate rises by a half-percentage point or more relative to its low during the previous 12 months.

The economy appears to be in a continual freefall and many now question any data coming from the White House.

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Economy

Horror Film “Redhead” Premieres in Huntington to Packed House

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HUNTINGTON, WV – On Monday, in the heart of downtown, the horror movie dynamic directorial duo of Sam and Johnna Hodge, unveiled their latest film, “Redhead” to an audience of more than 200 attendees.

The film premiered at Marquee Cinemas and featured a pre-showing red carpet event.

Sam Hodge, a Barboursville native who has directed three feature length films in as many years, stated how thankful he was at the reception Redhead received by fans.

“I couldn’t be more thankful for the love people showed “Redhead”, from hardcore horror fans to people who avoid scary movies. I’ve never heard such a wild and rowdy audience. They were all involved and very vocal,” Hodge said.

“We did have a couple of patrons who got grossed out before the opening credits who left, but that is kind of a compliment,” he said.

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The film stars Sam’s wife, director and actor Johnna Hodge, who plays the lead role of Autumn Blacksmith, a widow who engages in a relentless revenge binge after witnessing the brutal murder of her husband.

Johnna Hodge, who also co-directed the film, stated how exciting it was to hear the audience react to various scenes throughout the movie.

“You could hear cheers of enjoyment all around and even some saying they were going to vomit from the intense gore,” Hodge said.

“It was excellent for so many showing up and being there to support our film that was done by a community as well as the various actors that traveled in to be a part of this,” she added.

Mark Roberts, creator and owner of The Dead Cards, stated the film is a “must see and wild ride” in his Facebook review of the movie.

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“When you’re talking about indie films, people kind of never know how it will be received or if it is cheesy or low quality. That definitely did not happen with “Redhead”. I feel elated that people are seeing the movie as a high-quality throwback to gritty, unapologetic and classic old-school horror,” Hodge said.

West Virginia has seen a rise in independent film productions since the state reinvented the Film Office and passed the Film Tax Credit last year.

The Hodges said they plan to start marketing the movie on the film festival and horror con circuit before the global distribution process begins.

The movie also stars Ashley Stinnett (M30 Oxy, Hope of Escape, The Good Fight), Will Holland (Hazing Hell, The Neighbors Are Watching), Sara Stinnett (Christmas at the Greenbrier, The Good Fight), Justin W. Fox (Phantom-Fun-World), Daniel Lund (The 3rd Channel, River Beauty), and Evan J. Mackey (Not Another Church Movie, The Walking Dead, Reunion from Hell 2).

For more information and updates about the film, check out the official “Redhead” movie fan page on Facebook.

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