Stand on 24th Street in northwest Roanoke at the corner of Salem Turnpike, and you’ll be in one of the few neighborhoods in the entire city where an entire neighborhood is untouched by easy access to a grocery store.
This isn’t news to the people who live in the Melrose/Orange Avenue area. They’ve been either piecing together transportation to supermarkets well outside the neighborhood or subsisting on what they can find at corner markets and general stores since the 1990s.
It’s no secret that they would love a grocery store back in the neighborhood.
But now a market study by a consortium of nonprofits demonstrates that the neighborhood could support at least a small full-service grocer.
“We know there’s a market for one,” said city Planning Director Chris Chittum.
The study was paid for by Invest Health, a grant-funded nonprofit, working with city government, Freedom First Credit Union, Healthy Roanoke Valley and the Local Environmental Agriculture Project, or LEAP.
It’s now in the hands of city leaders, who will seek an investor to fund development of a store and work with them to provide incentives to make a project happen.
“We’re not in the grocery store business and if we were we’d be terrible at it,” Chittum said. The city’s role will be limited to setting the table for the private sector to make it happen.
Success will require threading a needle between national industry trends, challenges in the low-income, high unemployment neighborhood, available real estate, finding the right investor and developer, distributor and retailer and developing a model that works in that one small place on the map, said Liz Ackley, project leader for Invest Health.
“This is a jigsaw puzzle that has to happen perfectly.”
‘A social justice issue’
Right there on 24th Street there’s a store that, at a glance, looks like a small supermarket.
It’s called Food Giant, and its manager acknowledges it’s really more of an oversized convenience store. There are rows of nonperishable foods like cereal and canned goods, and cooking needs like oil and spices, a small produce section with some tomatoes and potatoes and bananas, and one cooler with ground beef and chicken wings.
But Rafat Srour said even so, perhaps 30 percent of his business is groceries, and very little of that is real grocery shopping. Most of it is an ingredient to finish a recipe or stuff for one dinner.
The rest is convenience store staples — beer, sodas, snacks, lottery tickets.
A survey of more than 300 neighborhood residents found almost no one that identified the store as a source of groceries.
In sum, the Food Giant, despite hopes for it when it opened in 2005, hasn’t filled the grocery gap in the neighborhood left when the last full-service store closed in the late 1990s.
For many years, the neighborhood was home to Kroger like many other places. But that was when grocery store chains operated smaller stores. The company had a store on 19th Street Northwest flanked by a SupeRx drug store and an ABC store. It wasn’t only a retail center, it was a neighborhood gathering place.
But Kroger and other chains left behind 15,000-square-foot stores in cities long ago in favor of 65,000-square-foot buildings in the suburbs.
The 19th Street Kroger closed in about 1990. A few different retailers tried to operate there through the 1990s, to no avail. The building is now gone, the space occupied by a fire station.
A CVS Pharmacy occupies another part of the lot, typifying the retail offering in the area along with two Family Dollar stores and some corner markets.
Residents in that part of northwest Roanoke, many of whom don’t have cars, depend on those stores and when they can, use public transportation to reach full-service stores like Kroger, Food Lion or Walmart.
The result, Ackley said, is with long intervals between trips to a supermarket, they tend to buy few fruits, vegetables and fresh meats and favor nonperishables instead. That adds up to a less healthy diet.
Given supermarket industry trends and so many failures to re-establish a new store in the neighborhood, Ackley and Chittum acknowledge landing a new store will be a battle.
“It’s almost a social justice issue,” Ackley said. “It’s an issue in equity.”
‘A neighborhood anchor’
Even successful grocery stores often operate on a slim profit margin — as little as 1 percent or 2 percent, Ackley said.
These days, traditional grocery chains are also trying to negotiate a changing retail climate thanks to more online shopping and consumer demands for immediate service. Amazon, the online retail behemoth, now owns a grocery store chain — Whole Foods, Ackley noted.
“It’s a tricky climate,” she said, even in the most appealing local markets.
Drawing a grocer to a neighborhood with its own challenges could be even more daunting, because that adds challenges like low incomes and a broad lack of transportation.
Yet the market study completed late this summer demonstrates it could work, Ackley and Chittum said. The study itself is proprietary, so Ackley would divulge no details beyond that basic conclusion, but they believe it’s a strong start.
It shows bringing a grocer back to northwest Roanoke is possible.
“It needs to be done in a really collaborative way,” Ackley said.
One idea is to stack the grocery store amid other desired services to create multiple reasons for foot traffic that could help secure the grocery — a pharmacy, an urgent care facility, or something else.
“Then you establish a neighborhood anchor,” Ackley said.
There’s evidence that a smaller store can succeed by tailoring its offering to the needs and desires of the immediate neighborhood. Many in northwest Roanoke indicated they really want a closer source for fresh meats, for example.
A store that hires from the neighborhood, establishing a connection to the community and aiding it with wages, can also make a difference, Ackley said.
“The ability of this work to move forward really hinges on an investor,” she said. “We need someone either with grocer experience who’s willing to try a new model here in this neighborhood, or someone who’s willing to invest in this community and not necessarily look at this as a moneymaker.”
The investor could be an existing nonprofit willing to stretch its mission, Ackley said.
The investor would then need to bring in a grocery distributor and a retailer — mostly likely a small, independent grocer.
Whether that initial investor chooses to develop a building as a nonprofit makes a tremendous difference on what the city’s role can be in helping, Chittum said.
A for-profit development could benefit from typical city retail economic development incentives — often in the form of tax rebates for the developer to make the project feasible, Chittum said.
A nonprofit model, however, could benefit from direct contributions of federal Community Development Block Grant funds by the city — perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
In either case, the city wouldn’t merely be helping because they would get tax revenue in return over the long haul, Chittum said. It would be because the developer is providing a needed community service.
‘Did we do everything we could’
Despite all the study and encouraging indications, Ackley said she’s still not entirely convinced a grocery story is the right option.
But the possibility is there.
“We don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up,” Chittum said. “What I want to walk away with, is, did we do everything we could to respond to this community need?”
“What the residents want is paramount,” Ackley said. Any store that seems uninterested in what the community needs will find that a barrier to success, she said.
“At the end of the day, a lot of this is being run by people who are not in the grocery store business,” Ackley said.
But, she added, “You’ve got a lot of really passionate people trying to push this forward.”