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Phil Weiser begins listening tour on possible Kroger-Albertsons merger

 Safeway in Gunnison, one of only two large retailers in the Western Colorado city.
Kate Gienapp
Safeway in Gunnison, one of only two large retailers in the Western Colorado city.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser is visiting communities impacted by the proposed grocery store merger between Albertsons and Kroger.

Kroger, which owns City Market, announced plans to acquire Albertsons, which owns Safeway, for nearly $25 billion last October.

Weiser’s office is now leading a multi-state investigation into the proposed merger.

The listening sessions are what Weiser describes as part of the initial investigation phase to explore whether the merger is benign or if it hurts consumers or workers.

In late January, Weiser visited Gunnison to kick-off the listening tour.

Gunnison County has a Safeway, and a City Market, both located in the City of Gunnison.

If the proposed merger did take place, the two major stores would be owned by the same company.

"There's a concept called the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. What do people most need to survive? Food is really basic. When you have food insecurity, when people can't afford food. It creates all sorts of other stresses or strains on families and communities. This merger bears on food prices on food choice on the food pantries access to food, all those topics came up, people were really concerned and for understandable reasons," said Weiser.

Weiser said the number of people that travel to Gunnison for groceries was surprising.

"Geographic markets are sometimes not what you think. Lake City is dependent on access to food in Gunnison, meaning, the geographic market is not only Gunnison it could well include Lake City," said Weiser.

Gunnison County, which is one of the larger counties in the state geographically, is host to many smaller communities sprinkled throughout the region like Crested Butte, Lake City and Saguache who also rely on the two major grocery chains.

Other communities like Almont, Pitkin, Sapinero and Parlin travel to City Market and Safeway for basics like milk and eggs.

Gunnison resident Steve Schechter testified at the meeting about the additional needs in a popular resort destination where groceries not only serve the local population, but visitors too.

"As soon as a plane lands at the airport, they come over to City Market and they strip the shelves like locusts. And so locals have last choice on that," he said.

Gunnison County Commissioner Liz Smith said there are numerous impacts the merger would have on rural communities like the Gunnison Valley.

"I think that many of us have made the big trip down to get us in whether you're coming from Lake City or Crested Butte only to find the same things, household staples that you need, out week after week after week.  And so having two grocery stores in such close proximity has been helpful, because if you're making that investment, and you know, some people, this is a 90 minute one way trip, if you're making that time investment in your car, you know, to get to a grocery store, you have another chance to get the thing that you need, but if we're reduced to one supply chain instead of two, that makes things even more difficult," said Smith.

Gunnison Mayor Diego Plata spoke at the listening session and said one of his biggest concerns was the potential change in pharmacies.

City Market and Wall-Mart have pharmacy departments, but a single store closure could mean access to medical supplies could come from only one store.

Representatives from the Gunnison Country Food Pantry were also in attendance.

The pantry relies on City Market and Safeway each month for food donations.

According to the Gunnison Pantry, both grocery chains contribute a substantial amount of food for those in need.

In 2022 Safeway donated nearly 40,000 pounds of food while City Market donated approximately 32,000 pounds.

The community has also seen an increase in the need for food assistance.

Reports from the Gunnison Pantry show people asked for food assistance about 3,000 times in 2016.

By 2022 that figure had more than doubled.

Longtime Safeway employee John Stefanic, who was in attendance for the meeting, said his main concern was how pensions could be impacted by store closures.

"I mean, it's a big chunk of money. I mean, not a big chunk of money. Yeah, yeah, it would hurt. I mean, at our age right now, I'm 75 years old. There is not a place in town that's gonna hire me. I'll tell you right now," said Stefanic.

Nancy Barnett is the produce manager at Safeway and told the hearing that she too is against the merger.

"(As) they close union stores, it is going to affect the pensions," she said.

Weiser will continue his listening tour across the state as his office gathers information over the course of the next year.

"There are people who are already on the edge, we want to make sure that a merger doesn't go through that pushes them off the edge," said Weiser.

Public comments can be submitted to the Attorney General's office through the website

This story from KBUT was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including KSJD.

Kate Gienapp