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Staff photo by Mike Pare / A shopper pushes a cart in front of the new Save A Lot grocery store in East Chattanooga.

Longtime East Chattanooga resident Wanda Brown said Thursday that she was looking forward to checking out for the first time a new Save A Lot grocery store that opened in the neighborhood.

"We have been needing one and it's so convenient," she said as she was walking into the store near the intersection of Dodson Avenue and Glass Street.

The store, opened by local businessman Chaudry Ali last Friday, meets a need in a part of Chattanooga that city officials labeled "a food desert." For years, the neighborhood has lacked a full-service store selling food and vegetables.

"Grocery stores are tough," said Jermaine Freeman, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Andy Berke. "But that doesn't mean you can't get those done."

Barrisha Banforth, a shift leader at the store, said she thinks it will do well.

"Everything is going OK," she said, noting a grand opening is planned for Nov. 28 at the store that employs from 20 to 25 workers.

Store employee Trina Carlisle said they've seen a lot of customers so far.

"Everybody is so glad we have a grocery store," she said. Carlisle said shoppers won't have to travel to Brainerd Road or other locations outside the neighborhood to buy groceries.

The store has been a long time coming, having been proposed in the first part of 2019.

At that time, plans were laid out for an 11,000-square-foot store and a $2 million investment during a presentation for the city's Industrial Development Board.

The panel agreed to provide the business with a $30,000 grant to improve the exterior of the site, which formerly held a Sunnytown Supermarket that closed in 2014. The grant came from the Renewing Chattanooga program, which provided funds to businesses for blighted properties in under-served parts of the city.

Freeman said then that the program's money came from a fund that larger companies pay into as part of securing city property tax breaks under payments in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) agreements when developing a project.

He said that under the Save A Lot model, private business people are responsible for putting up the store and readying it for customers. Then, they partner with Save A Lot on discounts to food, which they sell to patrons, Freeman said.

"The real credit goes to Chaudry Ali for sticking with it and seeing it through," he said.

Freeman said the city also is making sidewalk and streetscape improvements in the area.

He said neighborhood leaders pushed for the store, and City Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod advocated for the business.

Officials hope more is to come to lift up East Chattanooga. Nippon Paint USA has identified the former Harriett Tubman public housing site nearby for a $61 million plant.

Earlier this month, the city agreed to lend the Industrial Development Board $4 million to extend Hardy Street into the housing project site.

The loan will be repaid over the next 20 years with extra taxes to be generated from Nippon Paint, which plans to soon begin building a 270,000-square-foot factory. The facility is to supply the $1.6 billion Toyota/Mazda auto plant under development in Huntsville, Alabama.

A map by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department has shown that food deserts generally match up with the poorest parts of town. Often, residents there are not a promising target for grocery stores and they can't afford a car to drive to a supermarket in another neighborhood.

Contact Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.

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