by Mary Rupert
With a groundbreaking today for a new grocery store downtown, the end of the food desert in eastern Kansas City, Kansas, is in sight.
The Merc Co-Op, to be on the east side of a parking lot at 5th and Minnesota, is the answer to many years of work to open a downtown grocery store. About 250 people attended a groundbreaking on Thursday for the new grocery store.
The 14,000-square-foot grocery store is scheduled to open in mid-2020. It will be a full-service store with a salad bar, a deli, produce, packaged meat, seafood and grocery staples, according to officials. It also will have an educational space. The co-op has been asking residents to tell them what they would like to see in the store.
Working on the $7 million project are the CBC Real Estate Group, Sunflower Development Group, Henderson Engineers, BHC Rhodes, Bob D. Campbell and Co. Engineers, McCown Gordon Construction and International Architects.
More opportunities for downtown
Mayor David Alvey said he believes the new grocery store will bring more opportunities to the downtown area for retail and entertainment.
“This one is special because so many people of good will, for so many years, through so many challenges, sustained a passion to bring a grocery store to the people of our downtown neighborhood,” Mayor Alvey said. “This one is special because I believe all these people of good will came to this project with eyes wide open. Not only did they see the problem of the lack of access to groceries, but they also saw the need to make sure that the project was financially sustainable.”
The next development for downtown Kansas City, Kansas, is across the street from the grocery store, at the old EPA building that is being converted into a behavioral health facility for the University of Kansas Hospital.
A catalyst for economic development downtown
The grocery store will be a catalyst for economic development in downtown Kansas City, Kansas, Unified Government Commissioner, 2nd District at large, Tom Burroughs said.
The MERC will be a gathering place for neighbors and friends, a partner with urban gardeners, and will address the food desert, he said.
“Look around, take notice of our potential. The transformation is occurring as we speak, business by business, building by building, home by home,” Burroughs said.
He listed several renovations in the area, including the new KU Hospital Strawberry Hill campus and the YMCA Loft development with 55 apartments. Like today, “the Dotte is hot,” Burroughs remarked.
UG 2nd District Commissioner Brian McKiernan thanked the people from the MERC for investing in the community but also for engaging with the community.
“This is only the next step in creating an ever-better city and an ever-better community,” Commissioner McKiernan said.
‘When everyone is saying no, but a yes is out there’
Rachel Jefferson, executive director of the Historic Northeast-Midtown Association and a member of the MERC board of directors, said the new grocery store will follow the co-op model. The members will own it, but shoppers don’t have to be members to shop there.
“The installation of the MERC is an example of what it looks like when our institutions are forced to start getting creative – when everyone is saying no, but a yes is out there and it just has to be found,” Jefferson said.
She said they understand that while this is a step forward, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done with food access in the eastern part of the city. She said they support other interventions that bring them closer to the goal of community ownership and control.
The Rev. Cedric Rowan, pastor of the First Baptist Church, 5th and Nebraska, said the church was excited about the new grocery store in the neighborhood.
“This is day one of what more can happen when we all work together,” Rowan said. “Let’s embrace this change, let’s honor this change and do everything we can to make this grocery successful.”
Rob Richardson, UG planning director, said the zoning for the new grocery store is in place and the building permit is almost done.
Pam Smart, executive director of the Mount Carmel Redevelopment Corp., who was in the audience at the groundbreaking, said she didn’t work directly on this project, but “we all share in the same goal, wanting to have quality food.”
“The community could handle two grocery stores, but it has to be economically feasible,” she said.
Chris May, who works nearby at the Board of Public Utilities offices at 540 Minnesota Ave., said she was really looking forward to the new grocery store and she knows she will shop there.
Dr. Nozella Brown, director of the K-State Research and Extension office in Wyandotte County, helped facilitate 12 community listening sessions to obtain residents’ thoughts about what they wanted to see in a new store.
She said she was excited that the grocery store is finally happening.
The creative approach
The creative approach referred to by some speakers includes the financing of the grocery store. Unable to get a Kansas City area grocery store to locate downtown earlier, community leaders sought alternatives.
Originally a Healthy Campus with a grocery store and YMCA was planned near 10th and Minnesota, but that plan was changed when Mayor Alvey took office and sought a more financially sustainable solution. The UG made an agreement with The Merc, a cooperative grocery store in Lawrence, Kansas, for a new store at 5th and Minnesota.
The UG will own the grocery store building, while The Merc will run the store, according to officials. There has been some discussion about selling the building to a private owner in the future. A board of directors elected by the co-op members in Kansas City, Kansas, will make the decisions on the store.
The UG has agreed to use $3.2 million and $1.6 million it received from the sale of the downtown Hilton Garden Inn to reinvest in the downtown area grocery store project, according to information from the UG. The Hilton Garden Inn and the Reardon Convention Center are across Minnesota Avenue from the new grocery store.
Besides a downtown tax increment financing district for the project, there are New Market Tax Credits from the Central Bank of Kansas City, which will contribute $1 million to the project, according to UG information. The Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) is providing some capital for the purchase of $1.42 million in UG general obligation bonds.
Northeast area grocery store planned on Quindaro
During the discussions about the downtown grocery store, several residents said there was still a need for a grocery store in the northeast area, north of the downtown store.
Rachel Jefferson said plans are going well for the new grocery store in the northeast area.
The future grocery building at 1726 Quindaro Blvd. is owned by the P.R.I.D.E. black firefighters’ group, and has around 15,000 square feet, with 8,000 feet on the first floor, Jefferson said.
Currently, upgrades are taking place for the northeast area grocery store, including restroom renovations, new security doors, and a security system, she said. More information will be unveiled about the new Quindaro store on Sept. 23.
While the new store on Quindaro is not a Merc store, the Merc cooperates and is supportive in the northeast grocery project, Jefferson said.
Besides P.R.I.D.E., there are community partners for the northeast store including the Wyandotte Health Foundation.