CORRECTIONVILLE, Iowa | Pressing your face against the window of two grocery store sites in Correctionville, you see contrast, light and dark.
At the Old Valley Grocery on Fifth Street, you peer through the dark, spotting a container of Clorox on a dusty shelf surrounded by empty carts and racks. A sign on the door, folded and crumpled, bears language parallel to this gray January day. "Valley Grocery is closed until further notice due to fire restoration," it says. "Sorry for the inconvenience."
An inconvenience that now exceeds three years ends Jan. 30 as The Mercantile, a community-supported grocery store effort one block west of the old store, opens. Watching through windows at The Mercantile, at 319 Fifth St., you see volunteers scrubbing coolers, painting walls, assembling shelves.
"Oh, it's exciting to see," says shopper Charlotte Petersen, of Correctionville, stepping back from the window. "It's a big improvement."
Looking up at the lights illuminating the new 6,000-square-foot store, volunteer Mike Smith says, "We can finally see light at the end of the tunnel."
If your burg doesn't boast a grocery store, you feel the economic pain of Correctionville residents. Some young, many older, they've traveled to Sioux City, Moville, Holstein and Anthon since a fire gutted Valley Grocery on Sept. 30, 2009.
The old store structure, according to Mayor Jerry Hyler, was offered for sale for $75,000 initially. That asking price, he notes, rendered the site problematic for this project as the store, owned by a group in Michigan, still had to be cleaned, repaired and brought up to code after the fire. Valley Grocery stands as dark and troubled as the day it burned.
People like Smith, weary of inconvenience and inactivity, took action. His leader? Gaylen Knaack, the Correctionville businessman and booster critically injured in an airplane crash south of town on Dec. 1. Knaack, recovering in a burn unit at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, constantly asks about the new store's progress.
"This was Gaylen's idea to start with," says Smith, owner/operator of Correctionville Nursery. "Gaylen got us folks together."
What hatched was a business plan driven by members of the Correctionville Economic Development Corp. The idea involved soliciting donations and grants before building a store. The organization would then find a manager who would own the goods on the shelves and run the operation.
According to Smith, a person doing this solo would face start-up costs of at least $500,000. In a town of 824 residents, it's a risky venture. Says Smith, "You can't do it."
Enter Dawn and Mark McCrea, The Mercantile managers. The McCreas, high school sweethearts in the old Eastwood High Class of 1979, will pay the economic development group back through a 10-year lease agreement that ends with the McCreas owning the operation.
"The nice thing is that at that time, the CEDCOR (economic development group) will take the money that was donated for this store and put it toward another community use," Dawn McCrea says.
Cash donations, according to Smith, amount to $93,000 thus far. The in-kind gifts of labor and materials? He can't begin to tabulate.
"I can safely say 75 to 100 different people have volunteered to help put this together," he says. "The day we poured the concrete floor, we had 35 to 40 volunteers."
The plane crash claimed the lives of two store stalwarts. Jim Smith, of Correctionville, constantly hauled equipment needed to build The Mercantile. Lee Schroeder, of nearby Anthon, served as the site's lead electrician.
"The Saturday after Lee's funeral we had something like an old-fashioned barn raising in here," Dawn McCrea recalls. "There were so many electricians who were friends of Lee who came here to finish the work he was doing."
McCrea possesses another tie to this site, a lot that opened when the residence here crumbled in September 2010. Besides being a residential dwelling, the 1892 building served as the Columbia Opera House, and, yes, a grocery store owned by McCrea's grandparents, the late Ray and Alta Clark, and her parents, Danny and Alta Clark. The Clarks ran the Correctionville IGA in the 1960s and '70s.
"My favorite thing to do was to come down here at 3 a.m. with my dad to help unload the truck," she says.
That duty now falls upon Mark McCrea, who ended his tenure as a trucker for Western Iowa Co-op on Thursday. Today is Day 1 for McCrea as a full-time grocer. Dawn, on the other hand, keeps her day job.
The registered nurse says this new store, its bright lights and dozens of volunteers comprise an X-ray of sorts for her hometown.
"The health of our town will be a lot better come Jan. 30," Dawn McCrea says, looking over rows upon rows of bright lights and shiny shelves. "This shows our heart is still strong."