More than 25 years ago, Macon's C. Jack Ellis fought for a grocery store in midtown.
Tuesday, the former mayor stood in the parking lot urging Kroger not to close the store at 400 Pio Nono Ave.
"I think it's unjust and unfair to close this particular Kroger," Ellis said while standing in the shopping cart return rack to avoid taking up a parking space as he addressed the media.
Kroger's Atlanta Division announced Monday plans to closed the store as of the close of business April 20. The store opened 21 years ago despite multiple lawsuits by some of its neighbors who didn't want the store built. It finally was approved by the Georgia Supreme Court.
"From what I understand, this Kroger store has the highest volume of sales but yet they say the profit is down. So the question is why?" Ellis asked, but he didn't say how he knew what the sales were for the store.
"The store has experienced declining sales and negative profit over an extended period and its closure is necessary to make Kroger more competitive in the market," according to Kroger's news release.
Ellis said Kroger employees told him that thefts and lawsuits from "slip and falls" contributed to the decision to shut down.
"That's a management problem. That's a leadership problem. That should not be a problem of the people who depend on this store to provide their food needs," he said.
Ellis said he called Kroger regional management and headquarters in Cincinnati, but had not heard back.
He also said the company was "required by state law" to give 60 days notice before putting the store's 125 people out of work, referring to the WARN Act. However, there is no Georgia state law requiring advance notice of layoffs or closures. Ellis's reference to the WARN Act is the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. This federal law calls for a 60-day notification to workers or their representatives, which could be a labor union, and to the local government. The law generally covers employees who work more than 20 hours a week and have been employed for at least six months.
In response to Ellis's comment about the WARN law, Corporate Affairs Manager Felix Turner with Kroger issued the following statement:
"Kroger is abiding by state and federal regulations regarding the closure of our store located at Pio Nono Avenue and the notification of our employees at the store. A Kroger representative will be meeting with each store employee individually over the next week to discuss their options. All 125 associates will be considered for reassignment to other Kroger locations as outlined in the company’s collective bargaining agreement.”
Ellis called on the company to leave the store open to serve the surrounding neighborhoods, including three senior citizen centers. Some customers walk to get their groceries and can't hop in a car to visit the other locations that are more than 3 miles away, he said. The buses don't run overnight or on Sundays, he said.
As a Telegraph reporter published a live Facebook post during the news conference, she asked Ellis to respond to people who asserted that it should be left up to Kroger whether to close a store or not.
"But the store has a responsibility to the community," he said. "Every business has a responsibility to the community for which it serves. Of course, ultimately, it’s their responsibility. It’s their decision."
Then he suggested Kroger consider closing a different Macon store.
"If they want to close a store, why don’t they close one of the ones that doesn’t have the gas station? We know in east Macon, people fought putting in the gas (pumps) there (the Baconsfield location). Close that store and maybe that should shift the business here," he said. "They didn’t look at that. They targeted this store and this store only, and I think it’s unfair and even think it’s unjust."
Kroger encouraged shoppers to choose other stores at 660 North Ave., 3.4 miles away, or 4650 Forsyth Road, 3.7 miles away, or 4628 Presidential Parkway, a little more than 4 miles from the midtown store. Kroger also operates stores on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard and Hartley Bridge Road, both of which were recently renovated and enlarged.
In August 1994, residents of the Vineville Neighborhood Association fought plans for the store, and a Bibb County judge ruled against the company that December, saying the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission's approval of the project was "a manifest abuse" of its authority. The association maintained that the store would bring an increase in traffic, noise, trash — and a decrease in property values.
The planning and zoning commission approved new plans in March 1995, but neighbors sued again. After months of legal battles, the Georgia Supreme Court approved Kroger's project.
Work began on the 23-acre site in January 1997, and the 78,000-square-foot building opened that November.