By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
NAUVOO, Ill. -- Kenneth "Duck" Whitaker hopes a new promotion brings more business into his namesake grocery store in Nauvoo.
If not, Whitaker may close the store in September.
A Tuesday night community meeting drew a crowd of more than 100 focused on the future of Nauvoo's only grocery store.
Whitaker and the city's development committee outlined a promotion that begins today offering customers the chance to buy a store voucher for $100 and get a 10 percent discount with each purchase in the next 30 days using the voucher.
"That way, we're trying to get the price down to what they might charge if they drove to Keokuk, (Iowa) or further," Whitaker said. "If I can get my sales up, like I think this promotion might do, I won't have to close."
Whitaker said he's seen business slow even as his costs, including utilities and insurance, continue to rise.
"Being kind of an optimist, I keep thinking it's going to pick up, but it hasn't," Whitaker said. "I've subsidized the store quite a bit the past four years out of my pocket trying to keep it. I just can't continue to do that."
With the possibility the store might close, the committee got involved in trying to protect an important part of the town's economy.
"A crucial aspect of a small town is having a grocery store so that you don't have to go 12-15 miles to get a loaf of bread," committee member Chuck Gilbert said.
But the committee understands that the city's seasonal economy, tied to the tourists that flock in during the summer months, add to the challenge of operating the business.
The promotion "would give the store a better base during the off season," Gilbert said. "Part of our job in the economic development committee is not just bringing new business in but trying to maintain and enhance what you're doing. That's what we're trying to do."
Committee chairman Clive Moon said factoring in the price of gas and vehicle maintenance for shopping out of town compared to the voucher program and its discount makes it just as economical to shop in Nauvoo.
"This is to encourage as many families as possible to spend at least $100 more than they normally did at Duck's during the month," Moon said. "With 65 families or groups doing that much, they can be profitable year-round."
Whitaker said if the program's successful, it could stave off worries indefinitely that the store will close.
"I do kind of want to retire before too long," said the 77-year-old Whitaker. "It's much easier to sell a business when it's running in the black than when it's running in the red."
Whitaker, who owned and operated the grocery store in Hamilton for 37 years before selling in January 2009, opened the full-service grocery store in Nauvoo in 1995 and has eight employees.
"We are small. We can't carry the variety that large stores do. For the most part, we can't compete in price, but I think that our meat is much better than some of the larger stores," he said. "I don't expect people to spend all their grocery money here, but if they just do a little more than what they are, we could stay in business. I feel these small towns need a grocery store."