Shopko is last store of its kind for Wausau bus riders. Its closure will change their lives.
WAUSAU - If Grace Mueller needs to pick up milk, socks, plants and a memory card for her camera she can do it all in one place: Shopko. After the retailer closes on June 23, she'll be left without anywhere in Wausau to get discount items in one consolidated trip.
That's because the other local discount retailers sit just outside Wausau in Rib Mountain or Weston. For those with a car that's not a problem. But for Mueller and others who are visually impaired, disabled or elderly, it poses a dilemma.
Those reliant on the Metro Ride public transit system have only a couple of department store options such as Walgreens or CVS — and those stores are more expensive than a discount retailer like Shopko.
The bus system serves people only within Wausau city limits.
Kathi Zoern and Mueller, both of whom are visually impaired and unable to drive, said the Shopko at 200 S. 18th Ave. is a great resource they can access from the Metro Ride bus. The closure could change how they go about their regular shopping, they said — and could even change how the bus operates if there's a large decrease in riders.
"People just hop in their car just go," Zoern said. "They don’t think about municipal boundaries. I know exactly where I can go and not go."
Metro Ride previously served most of the greater Wausau area, said Transit Director Greg Seubert. Public transportation took residents to Rothschild, Weston and Schofield. Those routes halted for good in 2015, he said.
That's because the transit agency needs participation from those villages and cities for the buses to run there, Seubert said. For years now, those local governments have chosen not to subsidize Metro Ride.
When Mueller started riding the bus, she said rides continued until 9 p.m. and on Saturdays. Over the years, that's changed as hours were reduced. The bus now runs from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Mueller, 70, said she can't get her driver's license because she's visually impaired. She inherited an optical disease, a type of genetic mutation, in her right eye and can see only a little. So, she rides the bus to go about her daily life: visiting friends, running errands, going out to eat.
Shopko was an asset for those who rely on public transportation, said Mueller and Zoern. The bus would drop off riders directly in front of the store so they didn't have to worry about crossing major intersections — such as those in the area of 17th and Stewart avenues where traffic is heavy. In the winter it would be even harder to cross the streets as there are icy patches and areas that might not be shoveled.
For people who can't see well or for elderly passengers who can't drive anymore, getting dropped off right at the door makes a difference in their ability to shop for themselves.
"It’s part of daily living like anybody else," Mueller said. "How would you feel if you didn’t have a place to get toilet paper or paper towels where there is a special and reduced price?"
Without the bus, Mueller and Zoern would be left relying on cabs or friends and family for constant rides. But taxi receipts can add up.
Mueller once took a cab to Kohl's in Rib Mountain to pick up a pair of slippers for her nearly 94-year-old mother. While the slippers cost only $14, it was around $35 each way for the cab ride. That turns a $14 pair of slippers into an over $70 errand.
"Our lives aren't the same as somebody that can drive," Mueller said.
"They didn't think of us kind of people when they built the big box stores."
A particular blow to elderly and disabled
Seubert said he expects ridership on that bus route will dwindle after Shopko closes. His primary concern is for the customers of Metro Ride.
"We have been watching the decline of retail for a while now, and Shopko was the last remaining discount retail store on a bus line," Seubert said. "We have been concerned for a while."
The retail area near 17th and Stewart avenues is primed for a bus route, he said, because Shopko offered customers the chance to consolidate shopping trips by providing a variety of basic items. There are grocery stores nearby like Trig's and County Market; chain dining spots like Panera and Noodles and Company; Marathon Park; and John Muir Middle School.
For that reason, Seubert doesn't think the route will die off. It's the most popular with a total of almost 60,000 passengers in 2018. That's 18 percent of all city bus passengers.
About half of the passengers on the bus route to Shopko in 2018 were identified as elderly or disabled, according to data provided by Seubert. The only route with more elderly or disabled riders is the one that travels to North Central Health Care and Mount View Care Center, a nursing home.
'That bus route gave me ... independence'
Seubert said the Shopko closure highlights the need for regional transportation needs. People often live in one community and work or shop in another, he said.
The transit agency doesn't have a solution yet for riders after June 23 when the Wausau Shopko closes, Seubert said. He will have to evaluate the ridership numbers again and see how the retail scene around 17th Avenue might grow and change. Another large retail operation could open in the old Shopko storefront, or nearby grocery stores might take advantage of the gap and add more merchandise to fill needs, he said.
As for Mueller, she is not sure how her transportation habits will change. She plans to spend more time at Walgreens shopping for her household items and will likely have to budget more money for basic goods and more time for bus trips.
Zoern said she will have to find somewhere more expensive to run her errands now, or wait to rely on friends and family for rides to Rib Mountain.
"That's what that bus route gave me, was independence," Zoern said.