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Neighborhood activists in Greensboro have been working for years to solve the problem of their community’s lack of a grocery store with healthy food. Now there’s an end in sight … but it’s tantalizingly out of reach.

By Rose Hoban

In December 1998, the grocery chain Winn-Dixie closed its store in the Bessemer Center in the Elwell Avenue neighborhood of northeast Greensboro.

The neighborhood rallied; upset residents stood in the snow with signs protesting the closure. John Jones was one of them.

“My sons and I used to walk to this store. This was daddy-son time coming to this store,” said Jones, who still lives a little less than a mile away in a tidy house with the grass trimmed and a flower garden. At the time, his three sons were teenagers.

Google street view look at the Bessemer Center from Woodbriar Avenue. Family Dollar is the only tenant remaining in the old strip mall. The public library is seen on the right.

Now the Bessemer Center strip mall looks like the definition of urban blight. One can still see faded letters above the facade of the former grocery store, other storefronts are empty and the only store in the mall is the Dollar General, selling cheap dry goods. Once the strip mall held a branch of the library, but the city of Greensboro built a new one across the cracked asphalt of the parking lot.

Jones’ neighborhood is now a “food desert,” which, according to the US Department of Agriculture, is an area where access to a variety of affordable, nutritious food is limited. In an urban setting, that means that at least a third of a neighborhood’s residents live more than a mile from a grocery store and lack access to transportation to get to that food.

John Jones has spent his retirement trying to create a local grocery store in his northeastern Greensboro neighborhood. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

After the closure, Jones, then a supervisor with the city’s 911 system and now retired, was able to drive several miles to the nearest store. But many of his neighbors in the area didn’t have resources to own a car. Their only alternative was to take several buses or pay for a cab or ask a friend to drive to the store. The walking route to the nearest Food Lion, three miles away, requires crossing several four-lane roads and there are no sidewalks anywhere along that journey.

“If you’re buying four bags of groceries, it’s tough to use the bus,” Jones said. “Or you can pay the cab fare there and the cab fare back. But if your income is limited, that takes money out of your pocket.”

Since the Winn-Dixie closure, Jones has organized his community in an attempt to lure a grocery store to the neighborhood, but without success. In 2013, he and his neighborhood group learned they could create a cooperative grocery store to address the problem, and a light went on.

Keep the money at home

Over the past 15 years, various grocery companies have considered moving into the old Winn-Dixie space, but always bailed on the idea. As recently as last year, two private real estate developers proposed renovating, but they both pulled out.

That was around the time Jones and the Renaissance Community Cooperative started working with the Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities on the idea of creating a cooperative grocery store, a business model that features community “co-owners,” keeping any additional revenue and plowing it back into the organization.

Ed Whitfield from the Fund for Democratic Communities has been helping the Renaissance Community Cooperative jump over the many regulatory and planning hurdles to making a local grocery store a reality. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“We said, why don’t we talk about getting your own store,” said Ed Whitfield, a community organizer for F4DC. “A lot of people had never thought about the idea that a neighborhood could get together and build their own store to their own specifications to meet their needs. And upon hearing the idea, it was like, ‘Hell yeah! That’s what we want to do.’”

Whitfield helped the Renaissance cooperative group do market research; they found that in a two-mile radius from the proposed site about 34,000 residents spend more than $1.3 million each week on groceries.

“There’s some reasonable amount of that that could be captured by a neighborhood store in this community,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that absolutely everyone needs to shop here. But if everyone shopped here, they’d make a million a week in business.”

“There’s an amount of profit that can be made, and because it’s a cooperative it doesn’t have to chase investors,” he said. “Consequently, it isn’t trying to maximize profit; it’s trying to maximize the service to the people in the community.”

The project really gathered steam when F4DC and the Renaissance group got the backing of the Durham-based Self-Help Credit Union, which agreed to buy the property from the City of Greensboro for about a half-million dollars and invest in rehabbing the property, a sum that could eventually total about $5.5 million. Self-Help will be the landlord and the Renaissance co-op will work with it to design the space to their specifications and be the anchor tenants.

The City has agreed to contribute about $2 million into the project.

Making the community healthier

An increasing amount of research over the past decade has looked at the relationship between where people live and how healthy they are. In a major study published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that living in zip codes even a mile apart can account for a difference of 10 years of life expectancy.

Click image for interactive county map of life expectancy in North Carolina.

Jones and Whitfield drove a reporter past the only place within walking distance where there’s any food available at all, a convenience store on Phillips Avenue that has few, if any, fruits and vegetables.

“If you can go straight across the street from where you live into a store and all they have is beer, cigarettes, candy, chips and drug paraphernalia, that’s what’s convenient,” said Whitfield, who recounted a story he was told about a neighborhood woman who needed an onion to finish making Sunday dinner.

“There was nowhere to go without going a couple of miles to get an onion.”

The two have been proselytizing around the neighborhood to get people to contribute $100 to become cooperative members. Since the spring, they’ve gotten about 320 folks to pay, including some people who’ve moved away but want their aging parents and former neighbors to have access to better food.

Jones’ vision includes having the cooperative store hold classes to teach young people how to cook healthy meals with fruits and vegetables. But the store won’t be like the co-ops in places like Carrboro and the one proposed in Durham.

“We’re going to sell locally raised food; also things that the community needs and can afford,” said Jones, who added that his neighborhood isn’t affluent enough to afford the higher prices of many organic products. “We might have organic food, but we’re not going to be totally organic.”

“We’ll have fresh vegetables and fruits at affordable prices,” he said.

The plan is to also preferentially hire people from the neighborhood and provide full-time workers with health insurance.

‘One step and then a delay’

Getting the cooperative off the ground hasn’t been easy.

For one thing, finding that money was tough. Whitfield commented that typically real estate development is done by developers with deep pockets who want to see a profit from a property.

“The way cities typically engage in economic development in marginal situations where the market does not support the kind of profit that the typical entrepreneur would be interested in is that the city does something to make it more attractive,” he said. “The hope [is] that some benefit trickles down now that the profit has been guaranteed.”

Whitfield said in the case of a cooperative, the community becomes its own developer and keeps all the benefits and profits close to home. “It’s a new way to do business, and people aren’t used to doing it that way,” he said.

Community activists are hoping to turn the mostly derelict Bessemer Center in northeastern Greensboro into a community hub. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The state, city and county might have offered $280 million to Dell to open a facility that it abandoned in 2009 before the company fulfilled its five-year incentives deadline, but there are few, if any, incentives that any government entities offer directly to community groups like Renaissance. Things only came together once members of the city council asked Self-Help for assistance.

When the credit union said yes, city money followed.

In the spring, Jones and Whitfield were hoping to have the co-op open by January 2015, but that’s been pushed off until at least the summer.

“Every time I give a date, something happens and there’s a 30-day delay,” said Kim Cameron, the director of real estate lending at Self-Help.

First there was the way the land had been surveyed and divvied up by the city that created a delay. Then there was the realization that the old loading dock was too small.

“[The loading dock] is really just a hole in the wall; it’s not a true loading dock,” Cameron said. “And we have to show the traffic of how the semi-trailer will get there. That added another two weeks to the design process before we could submit a design plan to the city. It’s been one step and then a delay.”

The building needs a new roof. It needs to be brought up to code; the bricks need to be replaced. And then there’s the parking lot, a wide solid expanse of concrete that’s laced with cracks. But for the most part, the surface is impermeable to water.

“We have to tear up the entire lot and bring some impervious surfaces up to code. We’ll add a green space and plaza that does not exist now,” Cameron said of the efforts to bring things up from 35-year-old standards.

“It looks like a simple project, but there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that we’re working diligently at,” Cameron said. “From the outside, it looks like we’re doing nothing. People want to see shovels and scaffolding and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of work that goes into things before you even get to that point.”

Jones laughed when he heard Cameron’s comment about shovels. He said the community has waited more than 15 years to have a grocery store back in the neighborhood. He said the co-op’s monthly meetings have grown steadily, and people are excited.

And he’s not tired. Jones said he’s working 12-hour days planning, meeting with architects, people from the city, people from Self-Help, and selling, selling, selling the idea to neighbors, city officials, strangers, anyone he talks to.

Jones believes that a working-class community developing its own healthy food locus could become an example to other communities.

“This project can show them how they can do the same thing,” he said.

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