Planned grocery store to end Westside Chattanooga food desert

Planned grocery store to end Westside Chattanooga food desert

March 18th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

A One Stop Shop grocery store is expected to open in May in the Grove Street Center on Chattanooga's Westside. Residents have long discussed the need for a local grocery store in an area that is considered a food desert, a place without convenient access to fresh and healthful foods.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

WESTSIDE GROCERY TIMELINE


• 1999 -- The $1.4 million Grove Street Center opens as the first new commercial development construction in the Westside since the 1960s. Dollar General is the center's anchor store.

• 2004 -- Chattanooga Housing Authority purchases the Grove Street Center from the Westside Community Development Corp.

• 2007 -- Local businessman Gerald Mason signs a long-term lease agreement for a grocery store in the Grove Street Center.

• 2008 -- CHA decides to sell the Grove Street Center after the agreement for the grocery store fails; CHA is unable to secure funding to renovate the center for the store.

• 2008 -- New York-based Countrywide Consultants purchases the Grove Street building from CHA in July for $360,000.

• 2010 -- Dollar General, which provided some groceries, closes.

• 2010 -- Westside residents work with Chattanooga Organized for Action to host a community-wide march in December from the former Dollar General store to Buehler's Food Market on Market Street; the march is meant to draw attention to the community's need for a grocery.

• 2011 -- Husband and wife Shehnaz Mirza and Karim Badruddin meet with Westside residents in September and say they intend to lease space in the Grove Street Center and open a grocery; the deal doesn't come through.

• 2011 -- Former New York resident Mohamed Saleh signs a lease agreement in October with Countrywide to open a grocery store in the Grove Street Center; Saleh now lives in Huntsville, Ala., and says the store will be his first business in Chattanooga.

• 2012 -- The One Stop Shop grocery is scheduled to open in May.

Today, a gallon of milk. Tomorrow, save public housing?

A low-income Chattanooga community that hasn't had its own grocery store in two decades is about to get a welcome neighbor.

One Stop Shop, a grocery store that will include a deli, frozen meat, produce, milk and bread is scheduled to open on the Westside in May and by summer for sure, said owner Mohamed Saleh.

For the nearly 3,000 residents who live in the community -- a number of them elderly and disabled -- getting a store is "a big deal," said 70-year-old Adair Darland.

She was among hundreds of residents who marched from the Westside neighborhood to Buehler's Food Market in December 2010 to draw attention to the community's need for a grocery.

The march was organized in part by Chattanooga Organized for Action, a grass-roots advocacy group that in recent months has helped galvanize Westside opposition to a proposed community revitalization plan that promises better, mixed-income housing, a new school and an influx of businesses -- but likely at the expense of some public housing units.

One Westside resident said the fight for a grocery store is closely linked to the fight to save public housing in the area that sits close to downtown.

"The same people concerned about saving public housing were the same people who had the march for a grocery store," said Leroy Griffith.

A store will be a meeting place for neighbors and an important step in knitting people together for the common goal of keeping the College Hill Courts projects, he said.

Jeff Pfitzer, the director of Gaining Ground, a Benwood Foundation initiative to promote local food and food issues, said it's rare to get a grocery store to move into a food desert like the Westside. Studies show that when poor communities with little access to transportation don't have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, they often opt for less-healthy fast food or convenience store food, causing obesity and other serious health conditions.

"Bricks-and-mortar stores are the most difficult solutions to food deserts to implement," said Pfitzer. "So this should be celebrated. ... It's a social justice issue. We should all have access to healthy, affordable food for our families."

"TAKING A CHANCE"

The community hasn't had a grocery since Sherman's Westside Grocery Store, which opened in the 1980s and closed in the early 1990s, said former Westside resident Bobby Paris.

The entire Grove Street Center, where One Stop Shop is set to open, has been empty since the last business, Special Treasures, closed before Christmas 2010.

The center once included a police precinct, a laundromat and a restaurant owned and operated by Westside residents, but all of that eventually closed as government funding intended to rebuild the community ran out.

Saleh, a 32-year-old businessman, signed a lease agreement with the center's owner, New York-based Countrywide Consultants, in October 2011. Countrywide Consultants President David Collins declined to reveal the length of the lease.

Saleh is leasing the spot once occupied by the center's onetime anchor store, Dollar General, which offered some groceries but also closed in 2010.

"I'm just taking a chance," Saleh said from his home in Huntsville, Ala.

Buehler's, the nearest grocery store to the Westside, is about three miles round trip. The trek is no easy task for the elderly and disabled. Many people don't have transportation, and people can't carry many groceries on foot, on the city bus or in a wheelchair, Darland said.

One Stop Shop has no food or merchandise yet, but the lights are on and contractors can be seen working inside. Refrigerators line the side and back walls, and glass display cases sit on a raised wooden platform on both sides of the front door.

The grocery is the first new tenant in what residents hope will become a rejuvenated Grove Street Center.

Joe Williams, principal broker with Williams and Williams Realty Service, the local company responsible for renting spaces in the six-unit center, said he's been talking to several other people interested in the site.

"Unit 101 is going to be a shop that has everything, even a small deli, and I'm looking for a hair salon for 102, and the people have been crying for a laundromat that is reasonably priced and I've got an inner-city church that I just talked to for 106," he said.

He said he's also been communicating with interested people about opening a restaurant at the site.

"We're putting it (the Grove Street Center) back together," Williams said. "Things are looking up."

The One Stop Shop also will include beer, cigarettes and the lottery, said Saleh. He had planned for the business to open in January but was delayed when one worker was paid a portion of money but left without finishing the agreed work, Saleh said.

If all goes well this time, he expects to open in May. He said several residents have stopped by during construction to say his business is needed.

"We have had nothing open in a long time," said 15-year-old Westside resident Shonta Griffin as she walked past the location.

Meanwhile, the effort to save Westside housing goes on.

The Westside Community Association and Chattanooga Organized for Action went door to door last weekend in an attempt to get residents of public housing across the city to sign on to the Westside's "public housing is not for sale" campaign.

An estimated 200 signatures were gathered on a petition requesting that, for every public housing unit torn down in the city, another public housing unit be built.

Staff writer Joan Garrett contributed to this report.