Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Bobby Ramsey, an employee of Southern Ad Signs LLC, stacks a giant "m" on the roof of the Walmart Neighborhood Market on Shallowford Road while dismantling the store's sign on Friday, March 26, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Shallowford location closed its doors for good Friday, leaving the area's residents without a local grocery store.

The Walmart Neighborhood Market on Shallowford Road officially closed its doors Friday, and community leaders said they are focused on finding another grocery store to serve the area.

"We are in talks with other grocers, and we will be hosting a meeting with community leaders to discuss these details," said Dennis Clark, who is running to represent District 5 on the Chattanooga City Council. "I live in the Woodmore community, and you have thousands of residents, including me and my parents, who are without access to fresh food."

Isiah Hester, who is running for the City Council seat against Clark, said he and his team are also working to find a grocery store interested in moving into the area, particularly for the elderly residents of Eastwood Manor less than half a mile from the Walmart Neighborhood Market.

"One of the biggest impacts are to the elderly at the senior citizen home," he said. "They enjoy walking across the street to get fresh vegetables and fruit, it's part of their daily routine."

Clark and Hester are running to replace City Councilman Russell Gilbert after his unsuccessful bid for mayor. Clark said he has pulled together a Food Access and Equity Task Force that includes Gilbert and other community leaders to tackle this issue.

The task force will try to find a new grocery store for the area, but it will also try to avoid another scenario like this one, where the community was caught off guard by the closure, Clark said.

"It's a policy organization that researches to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

The store is the third grocery store to shut its doors in the past five and-a-half years in the Brainerd and East Chattanooga area.

Food City closed its Brainerd Road grocery store in 2018 , just three years after Scarbrough's Produce shut down on East Third Street in East Chattanooga. In 2012, Food Lion closed its Wilcox Boulevard store in the area.

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Shallowford Road Walmart closes

Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesperson, said in an emailed statement the store was "underperforming."

"The decision to close the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 4110 Shallowford Road is based on a number of factors, including historic and current financial performance, and is in line with the threshold that guides our strategy to close underperforming locations," he wrote.

The Rev. Gregory Odom had planned a community forum on the topic at New Monumental Baptist Church on Woodmore Drive for Thursday evening, but he was forced to cancel it when treacherous weather moved into the area. He has rescheduled it for April 9, he said.

"We don't have any delusions that our meeting is going to stop them from closing the store," Odom said. "In areas like this one, where this will recreate a food desert, the community didn't get a fair notice."

The pharmacy is also a resource people relied on, Odom added.

"It's almost as if there was no consideration of the void that would be left," he said "There are people in that community that depend on that pharmacy."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire has advocated support at the state level to tackle the problem of food deserts, and said he would favor financial incentives for grocery stores that offer fresh, affordable food in areas with limited access.

"We give businesses incentives to do something all the time," he said "To me it behooves us to try to look for a way to give these food companies an incentive to locate in these neighborhoods."

Ultimately, the stores exist to profit, Gardenhire said.

"You can't blame them for trying it and saying this is not working," he said. "If we are truly concerned about these neighborhoods, we need to do something."

Hester said he had heard reports that theft at the store was creating financial problems. According to data from the Chattanooga Police Department, there were double the shoplifting reports at the Shallowford Road store as at other, similar stores.

From February 2018 to February 2021, there were 61 shoplifting reports at the Shallowford Road market. In the same time period, there were 31 reports on East Brainerd Road and 19 at the store on Hixson Pike.

The Shallowford Road market opened in January 2016, but had deteriorated in recent years, said area resident Janet Jobe.

"I shopped there regularly and it started out very nice," she said. "But it slowly started to decline, there were a lot of expired items and then they started having crime in the parking lot and in the store."

She reported the problems to Walmart, but never heard anything from the company, Jobe said.

"Grocery stores don't have a high [profit] margin," said Jobe, a recent retiree who has lived in the Ridgeside area all her life. "If you have a lot of loss and stealing, they can't afford to put enough security around there it make it safe."

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