FLEETWOOD-221 Grocery’s Gaye Miller isn’t in the habit of crying every time she fries an egg on the griddle tucked against the wall of the tiny convenience store.
But Wednesday morning that story couldn’t be more different.
“I’ve said all along I didn’t want to get emotional because we knew this has been coming for so long,” Miller said, wiping tears from her eyes. “But I just can’t help it. I’m going to miss seeing all these people everyday when we close.”
Halfway between West Jefferson and Boone, 221 Grocery has been a convenience store for nearly three-quarters of a century. That’ll come to an abrupt end this week as the store will close its doors due to the planned widening of US-221, according to store owner Ronnie Cheek.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation plans to widen more than 16-miles of U.S. 221, transforming the curvy two-lane road into a four-lane highway with a divided median. The project will stretch from the intersection of U.S. 421 in Deep Gap to the U.S. 221 Business/N.C. 88 intersection in Jefferson.
It’s a project championed by the late Steve Goss, a former North Carolina State Senator who worked to see the widening come to life, that’s meant to make the road safer for more cars, relieve traffic congestion woes and reduce crashes.
It’s been in development for years, but Vannoy Construction only started work on the project in April of this year. The massive $154 million project will take at least 15 years to finish, according to NCDOT officials, which puts the completion date sometime in early 2030.
Cheek is among the first business owners along the road to be impacted by the widening project.
He said in early November the state had requested the removal of his fuel tanks – the lifeblood of a fuel station and convenience store – within 90 days. The route of the new, wider US-221 will take all of the property that his gas tanks and diesel pump sits on – along with much of the space his customers use for parking.
“What’s a convenience store if I don’t have that,” Cheek said.
He’s said he’s told customers for months that Dec. 16 would be the store’s final day – he said Wednesday he’ll probably open the shop’s doors Dec. 17, too, as a way to clear out remaining inventory.
“But it’s gotten harder and harder to think about as the date approached,” Cheek said. “It’s bittersweet to think about. It’s been tough, depressing coming in every day over the past couple months. Everybody that comes in the store asks when we’re closing.”
Cheek also said somebody else knew the store would be closing soon, too. Someone kicked in the shop’s rear door sometime on the morning of Nov. 29, and made off with thousands of dollars in cash and uncashed checks.
“I guess whoever that was wanted to take advantage while the store was still open, too,” Cheek said.
That’s a matter that has been reported to the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office, Cheek said.
He said he’s not exactly sure what he’ll do with the old brick building that currently houses the convenience store. He said he’ll likely rent it in the future though fuel will probably never be sold from the spot ever again.
“We’ll figure something out for it someday,” Cheek said. “I guess right now I’m looking to being semi-retired.”
Miller, who said she’s worked at the store for nearly 16 years in total, embraced a friend this morning in anticipation of saying a final goodbye.
“I can honestly say I thought the little place would be here forever,” Miller said.
Miller said she’s not sure what the future holds for her. She’ll likely take the winter off as she hunts a new job, she said.
But she knows exactly what piece of 221 Grocery she wants to take with her. Miller said she’s called dibs on the weather worn wooden bench that sits in front of the shop. It’s been Fleetwood’s favorite gossip spot and storytelling stage for years.
“That needs to go home with somebody, for sure,” Miller said.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.