Grassroots campaigns try to attract business to West Virginia - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Grassroots campaigns try to attract business to West Virginia

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Photo Illustration by Whitney Burdette & Jacob Hall / The State Journal Photo Illustration by Whitney Burdette & Jacob Hall / The State Journal
Photo courtesy of the Bring Trader Joe’s to Huntington Facebook page. Photo courtesy of the Bring Trader Joe’s to Huntington Facebook page.

Driving 115 miles to the grocery store may seem out of the ordinary.

But some residents of West Virginia don't have a choice if they want to visit Trader Joe's.

The popular chain of specialty grocery stores that offers organic, environmentally friendly food and other products does not have a location in the Mountain State. The three closest locations are in Lexington and Louisville, Ky., and Columbus, Ohio.

However, two groups of locals are trying to change that. The Bring Trader Joe's to Charleston and Bring Trader Joe's to Huntington Facebook pages have taken off in recent weeks in an attempt to attract the California-based chain to West Virginia. 

But will they be successful, or will they face an uphill battle?

A grassroots effort

Miguella Mark-Carew started the Bring Trader Joe's to Charleston page in April. Since then, the page has grown to nearly 4,000 likes. Meanwhile, Aaron-Michael Fox began Huntington's group July 6 and its popularity quickly skyrocketed. As of July 15, the page had 7,000 likes. 

"I had hoped to get about 1,000 likes in the first weekend and 5,000 in the first month, that's what I was thinking when I first launched it," Fox said. "We had 5,000 in about two-and-a-half days."

The Facebook pages follow the lead of groups established in other cities across the country. The page Bring Trader Joe's to Boise! was created in 2010 and currently has about 5,500 likes, and The Bring Trader Joe's to Asheville page was created in 2009 and has just over 6,600 likes. However, activity on those pages has decreased lately, and that's because of one reason: Trader Joe's is currently building or has announced intentions to build a store in each of those cities.

"I would like to think we were solely responsible for bringing Trader Joe's to Boise, but I think Boise itself was the determining factor," said Jared Buff, creator of the Bring Trader Joe's to Boise! Facebook page. "We just opened their eyes to what Boise is and the community here and the following they have here."

Buff said Whole Foods, a similar chain of grocery stores, built in Boise last year and has seen success. While residents didn't petition Whole Foods via social media, Buff said he thinks the store's success in the area helped pave the way for the Trader Joe's location now under construction. 

Company officials also take other things into consideration when developing its plan for future locations. Carew said she thinks the popularity of the Facebook groups will force Trader Joe's officials to pay attention.

"If they see a sudden spike in the number of people who want a store, they'll take that into consideration," she said. "I think they would be willing to listen if they knew people were craving it like they are here. That's all we can ask for is to put the word out there."

Wooing other businesses

Although the Facebook campaigns are popular, it takes more than just a few thousand "likes" to attract a particular business to an area. 

Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston's East End Main Street, knows that all too well. Cavender's group has spent the past 11 years revitalizing the East End area of Charleston, particularly focusing on economic development on Washington and Smith streets. Though business owners are investing money into their properties and the city is working to improve streets and sidewalks, the area lacks in one major area: It doesn't have a grocery store.

"As of yet, we have not been successful in recruiting a grocery store, but we have been successful in drawing attention to our district in the effort of recruiting a grocery store," Cavender said. "We have started to garner some interest, if you will."

East End Main Street has conducted extensive marketing analysis to determine the area's strengths and weaknesses and find room for improvement. Cavender said it's been an eye-opening process.

"It's not that we've been unsuccessful," he said. "We've learned a lot through this process. I would love to be able to just start a social media camping and bring a grocery store to the East End. It's not like getting Betty White to host ‘Saturday Night Live' — it's not the same process. We have to take a look at our district and analyze our assets, our strengths, our weaknesses … and say, ‘Where do our strengths lie? What things can we improve upon, and what things about our district are great but will only fit a certain type of business?'"

Cavender said he has reached out to Carew and the two will work together to try to attract a Trader Joe's to the area. And although he supports and respects the grassroots Facebook movements, Cavender said its not always as easy as calling or emailing a company and asking them to build in your area.

"It's different calling a national company and saying ‘we need you and know you'll be successful, why don't you come take a look at us' versus the reality, which is, looking at us on paper — the statistics, the demographic information, education rates, median income levels — all that stuff that big national corporations look at and analyzing that information and seeing where we fit within that model," he said. "It's a lot more complicated than that."

A numbers game

Gary Walton, executive director of the Huntington Area Development Council, said recruiting business comes down to numbers. 

"Most of the facilities like that, retail stores, simply look at flat numbers of population in the metropolitan area and income levels. Obviously a lot of our population is related to (Marshall University)," Walton said. "College students don't typically have very high incomes. As a result they would likely look in more metropolitan areas. That doesn't mean they won't look here."

Walton previously was executive director of the Putnam County Development Authority. While in that position, he said he encountered some instances where businesses did not want to locate in Putnam County because of competing interests and population size. In one case, PCDA tried to recruit Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Although Putnam County's population continues to grow, the corporation wasn't interested.

"Their playbook says no they don't go to Putnam County because they have (an Olive Garden) in Barboursville and Corridor G (in Charleston)," Walton said. "Do I think Putnam County could support it? Absolutely. Do I think Huntington can support a Trader Joe's? Absolutely."

Huntington's metropolitan statistical area increased earlier this year after the U.S. Census Bureau redefined the area, which now includes Putnam County. Huntington's MSA is the largest in West Virginia and has a population of 365,419. Charleston's MSA currently includes 240,000 people, making it the second-largest MSA in the state. Meanwhile, the Lexington, Ky., MSA includes about 485,000 people, Louisville's MSA, which includes parts of Indiana, is home to more than a million people, and about 2 million people live Columbus, Ohio's MSA. 

Walton said population size is important in recruiting businesses. That's why larger areas, such as Huntington, Charleston, Morgantown, Beckley, Parkersburg and Martinsburg have several locations of the same restaurant or store, while smaller counties often only have one or zero. 

"With our population, when you get an MSA of over 300,000, you look at restaurants here and Charleston compared to the smaller counties," Walton said. "There will be not one McDonald's, but several. There will be Red Lobster, Applebee's and other things."

Does popularity equal support?

As of July 15, the Huntington Trader Joe's page surpassed 7,000 "likes," making it the most popular Facebook group attempting to attract the store. But it's not the first time people in the Huntington area have tried to attract a health food store to the area.

"In Huntington, the local food movement and healthy food movement have been ongoing for several years," Fox said. "There was a petition that got started a few years ago to bring Whole Foods at about the time Jamie Oliver did his show here. The organizers of the Wild Ramp started that one."

The Wild Ramp is a community-supported market that sells goods provided by local farmers. The group started after Whole Foods declined to build a store in Huntington, according to Fox. 

Although Facebook boasts hundreds of millions of users, not everyone uses the social media site. So does the idea of attracting Trader Joe's to West Virginia have support outside the online community?

"I have quite a few friends who aren't on Facebook, some older folks who are not quite computer savvy or a little fearful of Facebook and social outlets who know about Trader Joe's and who visit Trader Joe's when they go to other cities," said John Hudson, who helps oversee the Bring Trader Joe's to Charleston page. "They absolutely adore the store and would love to have an option like that here in Charleston or in West Virginia period."

And Carew is encouraging group members to contact the Trader Joe's corporate office to ask them to consider building in West Virginia, particularly Charleston. But she wants group members to know that attracting the store won't be an easy, overnight process.

"People believe in instant gratification," she said. "This is not a year-long process. We'll be in this until it actually happens, and it's not going to be overnight."

Buff said he and his group in Boise also reached out to Trader Joe's corporate and received the same, standard answer of "Boise is not part of our plans for the next two years," even after the store incorporated in Idaho last year. That's also the same answer many members of the Huntington and Charleston groups have heard. But Buff said he thinks it would be in the company's best interest to listen to its potential customers.

"If a company is going to ignore a large group of people that is very loyal to their brand, there is something wrong within the ranks of that company," Buff said. "I know our little Facebook page was on their radar. I reached out to TJ's many times inviting them to come be a part of the group and conversation. While I never received confirmation they did, you can't ignore more than 5,500 fans, and that was only the people on Facebook who knew about the page. I've talked to people who don't have Facebook who are loyal (to Trader Joe's). People are still joining the page every day."

Thousands of people across the country have voiced their desires on social media and many have called or emailed Trader Joe's company officials. But that doesn't necessarily mean the corporation will build a new store in a certain location.

"Although it is really nice to be wanted, wooing doesn't go into our decision making processes of selecting a location," said Alison Mochizuki, direct of public relations of Trader Joe's.

But that comment doesn't deter Fox and Carew, who said they'll continue to work until a Trader Joe's is built in West Virginia. 

"I think they would be willing to listen if they knew people were craving it like they are here," Carew said. "That's all we can ask for is to put the word out there."