Reversal of fortune

Sammy’s in Mackay has had a complete makeover. Owner Fran Magee wanted a clean, modern convenience store and restaurant with the rustic flavor of the community. The store has become a hot spot for Mackay residents. Profits from the store are funneled into community projects. Monte LaOrange /

MACKAY — Since moving to this Custer County town six years ago, 57-year-old rancher Fran Magee has seen businesses close left and right.

So a year ago, when “Sammy’s,” a 50-year-old Mackay fixture was in danger of going under, Magee took action.

“That’s when my wife and I got the idea, we really can’t let Sammy’s go out of business,” he said. “It’s an important part of the town.”

Magee and his wife, Greta, purchased the sinking convenience and fuel store in July 2013. And their plan wasn’t to make money.

“My concept was, ‘Why don’t we get this place and, kind of change the business model?’” Magee said. “In small towns, business … doesn’t stay here very well. But a town needs a certain number of minimum services to survive, and if you don’t have them, you’re not going to be there. If you can keep the business here, it economically makes sense.”

The store, which sells gas, groceries, and fishing supplies, among other things, is a pit-stop for tourists passing through town and a popular mini-mart among locals. The Magees bought the Mackay business in hope of helping reverse an economic decline in the community, a problem faced by many small towns in Idaho and elsewhere.

And the Magees have taken a number of steps to do that.

The store has about 14 full-time employees, all locals. Prices, particularly fuel prices, are kept low. After covering expenses, any profit Sammy’s makes is donated to local organizations.

“I think of it as a co-op,” Magee said. “We’re all in the boat together, theoretically. The users are benefiting, that’s the co-op concept. They get direct benefit beyond their patronage.”

In the three months since it reopened after extensive remodeling, Sammy’s has put more than $10,000 back into the community. Mackay Joint School District 182 and Mackay Food Bank, as well as several community events, all have received money.

“Mackay is just a wonderful small town, but we’ve got some real problems,” said 80-year-old Earl Lockie, who’s lived in the area for about 25 years. “We’ve had the same population for nearly 50 years, but the demographics have changed a lot. We’re becoming more of a retired community. When Sammy’s was rebuilt, I thought it would be a real plus for the community, especially (the Magees) intent to hire as many people as possible. There are not many jobs in Mackay, so I think that’s a real plus to the community. Nobody ever wants to leave Mackay, but if you can’t make a living, you gotta leave.”

After purchasing Sammy’s, the Magees expanded the store from its original 1,200 square feet to more than 3,000 square feet. They more than tripled product selection and added a restaurant that offers pizza and sandwiches, as several of the town’s eateries have closed. They also added a liquor area — the Magees were able to acquire the town’s liquor license after its liquor store closed.

Sammy’s re-opened in May. Bridget Higbee, who worked at Sammy’s prior to its new ownership, said just about everything has changed — and that’s been for the better.

“Really, our goal was to bring more employment to the community,” she said. “We also want this to be a destination. We have so many people who come up from Pocatello and Idaho Falls on the weekend, and we have a lot of regulars who come on the weekends. Now, they know they can order their pizza’s, we recognize their names, and it’s almost at the point where we have their order memorized.”

Fran Magee isn’t a businessman. In fact, he’s a veterinarian who, for years, worked in the medical device industry. Now, Magee and his wife own a piece of Mackay history. As for reversing the community’s economic slide — so far, so good.

“There’s been an effect on this community that’s really been hard to quantify,” Magee said. “The morale has gone up, tourists stop here now and they’re impressed with the store. I think there’s an intangible effect you can’t put in dollars, but it will have an overall effect on the community.”

Reporter Kirsten Johnson can be reached at 542-6757.