ESKRIDGE — Situated on First Avenue, Eskridge Lumber is one of a few businesses in the heart of the otherwise quiet downtown.
Not many cars roll down the street, but when they do, drivers smile and wave.
That friendly and strong community support can also be seen within the walls of Eskridge Lumber, a longtime business taken under the wings of local residents who are fighting to keep it open.
It was in 2016 that the former owners of Eskridge Lumber decided to retire. They either needed to sell the business or close its doors.
That’s when community members stepped up. They wanted to purchase the business and run it as an LLC.
“Most of us anyway didn’t really expect a return on our money,” said Beverly Clark, a retired school district employee.
For the past five years, Eskridge Lumber has been under the ownership of 31 people who have invested time and money into the store.
A board of five people — Clark, Jerry Haahr, Diane Turnbull, Harold Warner and Rob Warren — are responsible for making business decisions, maintaining the finances and setting policies.
It hasn’t been an easy road. Low profit margins, employees’ health issues, the COVID-19 pandemic and high lumber costs have created unforeseen challenges. But if there is one thing this group is determined to do, it is to keep the small town business that has been a community staple open.
A community steps in
When the current owners of Eskridge Lumber gathered to discuss purchasing the business, they had one goal: keep its doors open.
It wasn’t a business deal a financial adviser would recommend, Clark said, but everyone agreed it was about investing in the community.
All 31 owners have some tie to Eskridge. Some are farmers and ranchers, while others are retired business owners, educators and former residents who still have a love for the town.
Most current owners have been here since the beginning while a couple shares have been transferred.
Haahr, a Lake Wabaunsee resident, has been involved in Wabaunsee County’s economic development for several years. Joining the Eskridge Lumber board was another way for him to help.
“When this came along, I felt obligated almost to take part in it if I’m pushing economic development in the county,” Haahr said.
Turnbull, a longtime Eskridge resident and insurance agent, said investing in the lumber business was another way for her to get involved.
“I just enjoy the community and would like to see it prosper as much as it can,” Turnbull said. “I’m one of these people that would much rather spend my money here than have to go someplace, whether it be the convenience store, grocery store or lumberyard.”
A challenging road ahead
Aging infrastructure and equipment, the coronavirus pandemic and high lumber costs are just a few of the problems Eskridge Lumber has encountered in recent years.
The business was just breaking even at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The business chose to limit its store hours during the worst of the pandemic which resulted in deliveries not being made.
“We have contractors that rely on us delivering to their site, then they had to go buy from other people, and we didn’t get them back,” Clark said.
The business’s future became dire. The owners were prepared to permanently close in the fall of 2020.
“Then we asked our members whether they were willing to invest more money, and 95% of them were willing to put more money into the store,” Haahr said.
The additional investment will keep the store open for at least another year.
But that doesn’t eliminate the issues associated with an old building or the rising cost of lumber.
Only one year in the past five has the business turned a profit. Owners hope to change that in the future.
“Our objective of this board is to keep this business open and thanks to the owners that have bellied up in the near past, we’ve been able to do that,” said Warner, a Lake Wabaunsee resident and retired builder. “If we can make a profit, so much better.”
To help with some of the struggles, Eskridge Lumber added livestock minerals and feed to its inventory and increased its agriculture sales by selling gates, wiring and posts.
Warner said adding the livestock supplies has proved to be a positive move.
Each year, the board meets to discuss ideas on how to improve the store and generate more income.
“We have developed a total marketing plan that encompasses everything from infrastructure to employees to advertising,” Turnbull said. “We’ve been working on trying to move things around in the store. It just takes time, and it takes people.”
A longtime employee
Maybe one of the most important aspects of the store is its general manager Randy Kemp. He has been working at Eskridge Lumber for 40 years.
He is one of the reasons so many residents decided to invest in the store.
When community members gathered five years ago to discuss purchasing Eskridge Lumber, many said they would only do so if Kemp stayed on as manager.
“That’s how confident we were in (Randy),” Clark said.
Kemp said he is grateful to the residents who stepped in and made sure the lumber store continued.
“It means a lot to me,” Kemp said. “It means a lot to the community obviously that someone was willing to do that. It’s tough in a small town right now.”
‘It’s about the community’
The store has secured itself as a vital component not just to Eskridge but to Wabaunsee County. Keeping it open is challenging but worth the investment.
“From the response from the members through this last year and the ones that added money when we needed it, they definitely want to continue the business if at all possible,” Turnbull said. “I think that’s a real positive aspect.”
Jim MacGregor, Wabaunsee County’s economic development director, said the efforts put forth by the Eskridge Lumber owners are unique.
“I think there is certainly a sense in each of these small towns in Wabaunsee County that they kind of have to do what they can to protect what they have,” MacGregor said. “There’s this interest in supporting each other and looking out for each other.
“But to the degree that you see at Eskridge Lumber where people actually went in with their own funds and made an investment, that’s a unique story.”
MacGregor said it shows the Eskridge community is aware of each business’s importance. The community members would be willing to put forth an investment for any store in the town.
Wabaunsee County struggles to attract business, MacGregor said, making it even more important that Eskridge Lumber stays open.
“I think we have to work really hard to protect everything that we have. If the Eskridge Lumber store goes away, it would not be replaced,” he said. “If you didn’t have a group of concerned citizens to keep that store afloat, it would go away and it would be an empty storefront.”
The ripple effect caused by an empty store can be detrimental to a small town, MacGregor said.
“I really believe this particular store is important because it’s about the community,” he said. “It’s about these people working together. It’s about them fighting for what they have and trying to keep it healthy.”