Jubilee Homes bought the abandoned 35,000-square-foot Holt paint warehouse at 601 South Ave. on Aug. 26 for $350,000. Holt is leasing back the property for a year, which gives Jubilee time to develop the project. There hasn’t been a grocery store in the neighborhood for more than 30 years.
Dixie hopes to have local residents both invested in the project and signed up as customers before the doors ever open. Attendees at the meeting will be asked to become members of a Jubilee Shoppers Club. “We want 3,000 shoppers’ club members,” said Dixie. “We want the employees to be from the neighborhood. We want the people to be part of the project.”
Love thy neighborhood: Walt Dixie and Jubilee Homes are bringing to this spot a supermarket to a part of the city where one has been lacking for 30 years. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Funds for the purchase were part of the $3 million in remediation funding that Onondaga County promised to the neighborhood to offset the effects of the Midland Avenue Sewage Treatment plant just a few blocks away. Other funds have been used to plan a series of community gardens and refurbish homes and businesses in the neighborhood near Midland, one of the poorest areas of the city.
The store will be owned by a not-for-profit corporation set up by Jubilee. The grocery store would be the first commercial venture for Jubilee, which has been building low- and mid-income housing in the city for nearly a quarter-century. “Our residents have complained for a long time that we don’t have a supermarket," Dixie noted. "We think this can be an anchor for the South Avenue and West Onondaga Street corridor.”
A market survey commissioned by the city in 2005 to study the purchasing power of residents and workers in the South Side indicated that tens of millions of dollars leave its neighborhoods every year. In many cases, the study concluded, inner-city residents shop elsewhere because of a lack of local businesses to satisfy demand. The survey, funded by the Syracuse Development Corporation, showed some surprising statistics. The density of middle-income families in the neighborhoods south of downtown was many times higher than for Onondaga County as a whole.
Since that study was completed, the P&C in Valley Plaza has closed, leaving South Side residents with the choice of trekking to Wegmans in Western Lights, or crossing West Onondaga Street to shop at Nojaim Brothers on Gifford Street. Many who lack transportation are forced to depend on the limited offerings of high-priced convenience stores.
With the closing of P&C, Nojaim’s remains the only supermarket serving the inner city. A mid-sized store has the best chance for success, according to David Michel, director of economic development for the city of Syracuse. Michel, along with Empire Zone coordinator Patrice Bey, sits on a committee organized by Dixie to explore the possibilities.
“The study showed that there is a need for a grocery store,” said Michel. “Whether they have the numbers to make this viable remains to be seen.” He added that the city is willing to discuss helping with a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement if requested. The city is also interested in helping the owners of Valley Plaza sign a new food store into the space vacated by P&C.
“It’s an absolute necessity,” said County Executive Joanie Mahoney when asked about the proposed venture. “What could be more basic than food?”
Asked how he would attract those mobile neighbors who have become accustomed to heading to Wal-Mart to do their shopping, Dixie said he intends to appeal to the community’s sense of pride. He sees the county remediation funding as an opportunity to try out a new, community-based economic development strategy. “We have to brand our neighborhood,” said Dixie. “We have to take pride in it.”
Dixie ticks off a list of businesses in the neighborhood, including an importer of African goods, a Jamaican restaurant, a blues club and two bookstores. He hopes to incorporate a dry cleaner, a pharmacy and other services into the new venture.
“We want people to see this as a place where businesses can grow,” said Dixie. “With those $3 million, we’ve already been able to get a lot of the homes in the neighborhood fixed up. We will have a garden district. People are getting new roofs, new porches on their homes. Now we need to leverage that money to get private investors involved. We have to get the community itself involved. The key is to keep the money in the community. If we don’t invest in our own community, then you get gentrification.”
To those who still doubt a South Side resurgence, Dixie pointed to the example of New York City’s Harlem, a neighborhood that has changed in a few short decades from a district plagued by crime and poverty to a thriving destination. The Abyssinian Development Corporation (ADC), which grew out of Harlem’s 200-year-old Abyssinian Baptist Church, headed by the Rev. Calvin Butts, began as a housing development corporation and is today a $600 million community development organization. Among other things, it has brought a Pathmark store to Harlem, creating 200 jobs along the way.
“What we’ve learned from their experience,” said Dixie, “is that it can be done. But we don’t want to go the route of bringing in a Pathmark. We want it to be a community venture.” In any case, added Michel, large supermarket chains are not likely to be returning to city neighborhoods in Syracuse any time soon. “The business model of Wegmans and P&C involves building very large stores, not stores such as this.”
A grocery store in the neighborhood won’t just benefit the community economically, said Dixie, but will be a boost to public health as well. “We’re not going to be selling 40-ouncers,” he said. “We don’t want a store that’s just selling blunts to people. We want good food, healthy food. We want to change the behavior of the people.”
Mahoney agreed. “When you don’t have a car or you can’t walk to a store, you eat fast food, or the foods that are available at convenience stores. It’s not too far a leap to see why we have an obesity factor in this county.”
For more information on the meeting, call 428-0070.