Mall or Nothing

IT WAS FOOD for thought when the Central and Bryant neighborhoods in South Minneapolis got back the results of a feasibility study for a new co-op grocery they'd commissioned in late 1995. In it were all the promises of a viable, 8,500-square-foot, collectively owned grocery store that could, according to census figures and predictions, actually make it in the inner city--something that seemed to buck the tide with mega-supermarkets now taking in the lion's share of the grocery industry.

For the 23,000 residents within range of the proposed co-op at 38th Street and Fourth Avenue, the prospect of a convenient market was a small godsend; getting to Rainbow or Cub Foods is a hike, especially since many don't own cars, and a locally owned business in that stretch of the city would keep cash circulating on the ground rather than up the big food chain. What's more, the store's business plan, written last October, called for groceries on the cheap rather than the high-end stuff stocking the shelves at other co-ops in town like the Wedge. This was to be blue-collar, one-stop shopping: Campbell's soup alongside bulk flour, Wonder bread, and the daily staples. All of which was good news for a target market with a median income of $10,600 and food-stamp cuts on the way.

The pledge cards started coming in--$30 up front for a basic membership down the road when the co-op opens its doors. Ward 8 councilmember Brian Herron got behind the project, as did Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and a
raft of southside nonprofits. The Minneapolis Urban League, located in shouting range of the corner, stepped in as part of the capital campaign, and dispatched a staffer, Ken Myers (who passed away last month), to spend half his time on getting the co-op up and running. The idea was to take down the dilapidated building that stands on that corner, clear a parking lot, and raise a total of over $1 million to get the store going by mid-1997. Already Bryant, Central, and nearby Kingfield have allocated over $200,000 in their Neighborhood Revitalization Plans.

All of these plans were approved
by the Minneapolis Community Development Agency when it agreed to manage contracts for the project two years ago. But more recently, the agency has begun casting aspersions on the viability of the co-op, contesting issues ranging from a headcount of potential customers (the MCDA figures just over 3,000 compared to the feasibility study's 23,000) to tear-down costs for the current building on the corner (the MCDA has upped its estimate to possibly $800,000).

Not coincidentally, the MCDA's diminished enthusiasm for the co-op comes in the wake of a 57-page study the agency commissioned from the Wisconsin-based Economic Research Corporation last year that MCDA staffers say is meant to serve as a "blueprint for revitalizing the inner city." But with its talk of anchor tenants, large parking lots, and concentrated commercial "nodes," the study sounds like a blueprint for the strip-malling of urban neighborhoods, and represents an imposing bureaucratic hurdle for more community-friendly projects like the co-op.

More specifically, the study favors developments featuring supermarkets with a minimum of 80,000 square feet of space, accompanied by "complementary" businesses such as drugstores and fast-food chains, and fronted by massive parking lots. The study also recommends a well-lit, secure place where area shoppers can supply their needs quickly and commuters can rest assured that they won't fall victim to "perceived security risks." Both the ERC and the MCDA admit that these areas of "positive synergy" will result in ripping down acres of city housing and old storefronts and changing the character of established neighborhoods. In most cases, the study says, creating the nodes and keeping the inner city intact "are inconsistent goals... and the neighborhood residents will need to choose one or the other."

But neighborhood residents in Central and Bryant have already chosen. And until the MCDA's recent waffling on its support for the co-op project, they were well under way in realizing their wish. "I hope it's not right to characterize [the MCDA's] position as pulling the plug on this grocery store," says Jaimie Markham, whose consulting group put together the store's feasibility study and business plan. "It's no secret that what [the ERC's] study tells them is that bigger is automatically better. But I have to take issue with several of their assumptions. First off, front parking lots create huge gaps on city streets where people walk, and break up the traditional feel of a neighborhood. Next, endorsing retail chains owned by stockholders makes it very difficult for small-scale, independent stores to compete. And third, these nodes are places residents generally have to drive to, and that's unrealistic for a city in which thousands of people don't own cars. What we're trying to put together is a viable co-op that serves lower-income people and that doesn't need to be propped up by public subsidies."

Karen Forbes, chair of Central's development committee, seconds the thought. "We've asked a lot of hard-core questions about the viability of this co-op. We've done the studies. We've got enormous momentum from residents behind us--people who want food at cheap prices right here in the neighborhood. For some reason, that doesn't seem to be in keeping with the city's vision. And, as we've learned in the past, it's not easy to fight City Hall."

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