Bringing Groceries Home
Mari Alyce Earnest, right, the Mississippi State University Extension Service agent in Quitman County, talks with a local resident on opening day at the new grocery store in Marks.
Extension helps town secure grant funding to land local grocery
Story by Nathan Gregory • Photo by Michaela Parker
From 2017 to 2021, living in Quitman County meant driving nearly an hour to Batesville and back to buy groceries.
Anyone in the northwest Mississippi county’s population of just over 8,000 who could not drive or afford the commute was out of luck. But a team of local leaders identified resources that eventually helped the county purchase a vacant building and make it viable for a family-owned grocery chain to locate there.
Those same leaders cut the ribbon for Jeffcoat’s Family Market in April.
“It has been a blessing for people who live here and could not drive and had to get relatives or pay someone to get them to Batesville to shop,” explains Marks Mayor Joe Shegog. “It’s a big relief for me, too. I can buy what I need right here in Marks.”
The process of recruiting a full-service grocery to Marks began soon after the old one closed. Mayor Shegog credits the county administrator at the time, Velma Wilson, with getting the ball rolling. Velma is now the Quitman County economic and tourism director. Mayor Shegog and Velma approached James Jeffcoat, who already owned a store in Tunica, to gauge his interest in a second location.
“Once he got to Marks, he thought renovation would cost more than he could invest in,” Mayor Shegog says. “We knew we would need to seek out some funds to help him get that done.”
Dr. Rachael Carter, a rural development specialist for the Mississippi State University Extension Center for Government and Community Development, was a key player in checking this box, Mayor Shegog explains. She had already conducted economic studies for the community to help identify economic development priorities.
“Rachael was the person who really worked with us on a day-to-day basis until this thing got done,” he says. “She pointed us in the direction to where we could get grants for the building, for the renovation on the inside. A group of local doctors owned the property, and the building and parking lot were in bad shape. I don’t think anyone had done anything to them since the early ’70s.”
The Quitman County Board of Supervisors was able to purchase the property using grant funding.
“Every program that provides this type of funding is very competitive. Whether it’s private investors or federal or state funding, they all want you to be able to explain why your project is important,” Carter says. “We don’t write grant applications, but we can teach communities how to write them for themselves, help strengthen their proposals, and chart a clear path for local economic development.”
The city received a $200,000 allocation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Foods Financing Initiative to help make the building viable to support a full-service store.
“Food retail is a very challenging industry because of the high startup cost and overhead just to keep the lights and coolers on,” Carter notes.
Getting the store up and running has improved not only the tax coffers in Marks, but also the town’s quality of life and morale.
“I have walked through the parking lot and seen some license plates from outside the county, so you have people who live north and south of us who shop here now,” Mayor Shegog says. “People I see in town and at church are excited about it and glad to have their store back, and James (Jeffcoat) is glad to be here. I was just talking to him the other day, and he said business is steadily improving.”
Video by Brian Utley