Don Norrenberns doesn’t want to close his supermarkets in Nashville and Freeburg, but he says the "crushing" costs of union pension funds left him with no other choice.
“This was something we had hoped to avoid,” Norrenberns wrote in an email Feb. 14. “Letting go of these stores has been very emotional. We love the people we serve, and the talented team that works with us.”
Two days after Freeburg employees found out their store was closing, Tom’s Market publicly announced plans to leave Freeburg and Nashville.
When inventory runs out the stores will close for good. Norrenberns did not give an exact date.
The company operated 12 different stores in Southern Illinois in recent decades. When the Freeburg and Nashville stores close, the Mascoutah location will be the only one left.
Tom’s Market served the Freeburg community for more than 32 years, and the Nashville community for more than 12 years. Norrenberns said the company couldn’t handle the weight of the union pension funds, which led to the decision to close Freeburg and Nashville stores this year.
The Freeburg and Mascoutah stores are a part of the Local 881 United Food and Commercial Workers union. The Nashville store is not. A representative from Local 881 UFCW declined to comment.
Union workers at his stores, Norrenberns said, aren’t to blame. Instead, he is convinced that union pension funds are “killing small businesses across this country.”
“That’s the story,” Norrenberns said. “It’s not just me.”
Under federal law, multi-employer union pension funds that are underfunded can make assessments on contributing employers to make up for funding shortfalls. For the Norrenberns family, those assessments were for millions of dollars.
Preparing for the final days
Freeburg Village Administrator Tony Funderburg said the village has made plans with local churches to get groceries delivered to seniors and people in need. Days before the closure was officially announced, Funderburg started looking for ways to close the gap between residents and the loss of their supermarket.
“Please know that we are doing everything possible to continue to have a supermarket in Freeburg," Freeburg Mayor Seth Speiser said in the statement. "We know this is vital to our community. We are currently researching all available options."
Speiser went on to explain that the village "has been in close contact with Joe Koppeis, the owner of the building, to come up with a viable solution to resolve this situation."
Freeburg resident Sue Bald said she heard talk of the store closing before it was officially announced. For her, losing the store is inconvenient.
“I live in Freeburg, and yes this will be a hardship," Bald said. “I don’t like to drive to Belleville for everything; I do my regular shopping here.”
Gene Vonderheide, of Freeburg, said he depends on the store as well.
“I’m in at least three times a week,” Vonderheide said “I’m in my 80s. My wife cannot get out. I’m a caretaker. We’re going to have to drive into Belleville now.”
Belleville is eight miles away from Freeburg, but the drive feels dangerous to Vonderheide and other elderly residents, who would rather shop in town.
There's a chance a new grocery vendor will move in, but Norrenberns doesn’t think anyone will move in until the store goes completely goes dark. In the meantime, local churches are stepping in to help seniors in Freeburg.
What will happen to the pharmacy?
Freeburg Pharmacy, a fixture in the community, plans to purchase prescriptions from Tom’s Market. Byran Schneider and his wife, Frances, own the pharmacy at 10 Southgate Center, where there’s room to add coolers and food items if the town needs them to do that.
“We could add grocery to the pharmacy,” Bryan Schneider said. Schneider said he plans to wait and see what happens to the building Tom’s occupies.
In the meantime, he plans to focus on the influx of prescriptions at the pharmacy where residents can purchase toiletries and other supplies.
Freeburg residents in need of a ride to area grocery stores can call St. Joseph Catholic Church at 618-539-3209, or St. Paul's United Church of Christ at 618-539-3262.
“We are family of tremendous faith and we know God has a plan for this, “ Norrenberns said. “We're not sure what that is, but we continue to operate with faith in his providence.”