…and we don’t mean Carmen.
So, my local convenience store just closed a couple days ago–I ran across the street last night to get a couple tomatoes and found the “closed” sign on the door, and the interior was clearly in the process of being emptied.
Here’s a pic of the facade of the Gypsy Market. Closed.
Now this brings up an interesting discussion–there was another “Neighborhood Market” around the corner that closed maybe 2 years ago. While the Gypsy seemed more in tune with the eclectic vibe of our urban ‘hood, neither its owner nor the owner of the Neighborhood Market struck me as being great business people, with solid plans for stability and growth. We need convenience stores downtown; we need local grocers; and we need supermarkets.
In Birmingham, for years we have heard the same argument. It goes like this: “Supermarket chains typically need approximately [insert high number here] people living within a 3-mile radius, and downtown is not ready yet. Not enough people.” More recently, there has been serious consideration of smaller, “urban footprint” type supermarkets that would be positioned geographically to serve both the north and south sides of central downtown–i.e. capturing the large UAB market to the southside.
What we’ve been missing is coordinated, professional efforts combined with incentives that other cities have used to induce supermarkets to come into areas traditionally avoided by chains that are oriented to the suburbs. Check out Greenlife Grocery in downtown Chattanooga which is like a mini-Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. And, unlike Birmingham, Chattanooga boasts a truly comprehensive, coordinated effort to induce a more mainstream supermarket into downtown: you can check out this executive summary from 2007 for a taste.
Cities cannot just wait for markets to come–they’ve got to get organized, aggressive, and in many cases offer incentives. Washington, DC has a specific incentive for inducing supermarkets to enter the city, which has had great success. I remember when the U Street neighborhood there was a relatively shabby area with no good supermarket. About 10 years ago the city passed their incentive law, and a developer put together a mixed-use project with Whole Foods as an anchor. The rest is history–the grocer helped spur retail and condo development across the neighborhood (although gentrification had started a few years earlier, Whole Foods accelerated it). Thanks to Maryland Route 5 for the pic:
Markets can be fantastic growth generators for neighborhoods. I think downtown can support both a full service supermarket, as well as at least a couple small convenience/local groceries, if they were done intelligently and backed by the right research and business plans. And, of course it would be nice if they could match the quirky vibe of downtown, as the Gypsy did manage to do.
And by the way, gentrification is a complex topic that will weave it’s way in and out of this blog. Suffice it to say that right now, downtown Birmingham has NO local grocers whatsoever, so we’re not talking about displacing local flavor with boring corporate chains. We’re talking about an essential service that’s needed. Now.