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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The parking lot of the former Walmart Neighborhood Market sits empty on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Chattanooga's two biggest grocery chains have both exited the Brainerd area in the past three years, but some community leaders hope one of them may be coming back.

Food City, which closed its store at Brainerd and Belvoir roads in 2018 after 33 years of operation, is sending its real estate team to Chattanooga this month to look at sites and to study the feasibility of adding another store in Chattanooga to serve more than 20,000 residents in the Woodmore, Belvoir and East Chattanooga communities who currently lack a local presence by a major grocery store.

Walmart closed its Shallowford Road Neighborhood Market on March 26, five years after opening the 41,000-square-foot grocery store and pharmacy at 4110 Shallowford Road.

On Friday night, the candidates running for both Chattanooga mayor and the city council seat in District 5 area, where both Walmart and Food City have shuttered their stores, each voiced support for doing more to encourage additional food options for local residents. East Chattanooga and Brainerd have been labeled as food deserts because of the limited number of fresh and healthy food options available at grocery outlets for thousands of residents.

"This grocery store business is very personal to me because I live in Woodmore and I recognize that too often communities of color get left out," Dennis Clark, one of the two candidates in the District 5 City Council runoff elections on Tuesday, told residents gathered at the New Monumental Baptist Church. "Two days ago, we had a meeting with the vice president of real estate for Food City and others, and they are interested in coming into this part of the city."

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Brainerd food desert community meeting

Food City executives have yet to publicly discuss any plans. But Clark said Stephen Spangle, vice president of real estate for Food City's Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee food stores, agreed to revisit the area with his team next Thursday and could begin a due diligence study to determine if there is a grocery site in the Brainerd area that would not compete with Food City's other stores in the market.

"It's not a promise, but it is a start," Clark said.

When Food City shut down its Brainerd Road store in 2018, company president Steve Smith said Food City had looked for a replacement store in the vicinity, but it was not able to find one. Smith said at the time that the company plans to continue to evaluate possible new store locations moving forward.

Chattanooga City Council member Russell Gilbert, who previously lobbied to get Walmart to open a grocery store at 4110 Shallowford Road in 2006, and Clark, who said he established a task force on food access and equity to address the challenge of supermarket service in the area, met on Wednesday with Spangle and some local pastors in the Brainerd area.

Isiah Hester, who is running against Clark to succeed Gilbert in the District 5 city council runoff election, organized an earlier community meeting to help rally local support for bringing more food options to the area. Hester and Clark, as well as mayoral candidates Tim Kelly and Kim White, all lamented the closing of Walmart's Neighborhood Market last month and pledged to work on recruiting other grocery outlets or encouraging startup ventures to improve healthy food options in the city.

"Unfortunately, Walmart is not going to allow any competitor to come into that building (where it closed its Neighborhood Market) on Shallowford Road," Hester said.

In the near term, Hester said he hopes to encourage local entrepreneurs to start food trucks offering fresh food for the area and he hopes to encourage local residents to add new food stores in neglected parts of Chattanooga.

"We need to mobilize the innovative entrepreneurs in our communities," he said.

Startup grocery stores have not always succeeded, however. Chattanooga businessman J.T. McDaniel opened Scarbrough's Produce on East Third Street in 2015, but that supermarket lasted only three months before it shut down.

The city of Chattanooga has tried to encourage new grocery options in food deserts by offering grants to retailers of fresh foods in targeted areas of the city. A Sav A Lot grocery opened an 11,000-square-foot store in November in East Chattanooga at Dodson Avenue and Glass Street, aided by a $30,000 grant from the city.

The Rev. R. Gregory Odom, pastor of the New Monumental Baptist Church in Woodmore, called the lack of grocery stores in the area "unacceptable" and urged local residents to push for more food options in their neighborhoods.

"We deserve better," he said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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