Grocery store fundamental to creating people-friendly and vibrant downtown


by Stefano Grande
The closure of the Zellers grocery store in The Bay basement on March 17 has sparked significant cause for concern from the downtown and surrounding neighbourhoods.
Located in the north side of our downtown, the Zellers grocery store offered an abundance of fair-priced produce, and was the only full-line grocer in the immediate area.
Many office workers and students relied on this store for their Monday to Friday lunch needs, and residents depended on its services from week-to-week. Its close proximity to the University of Winnipeg, office towers, and connectivity to the walkways and parkades has made it a downtown staple. 
The importance of food access is fundamental. And good grocer stores are drivers of vibrant inner city and downtowns for residents, office workers, and visitors. The challenge resonates strongly with the Downtown BIZ.
Ideally, we would hope that this huge gap left in the market would be seen as an opportunity by private-sector grocers.  But experience tells us that downtowns across North America have and are experiencing the same issues.
In speaking with downtown commercial REALTORS®, I can tell you they get it. 
Everyone agrees that the Zellers closure is not a sign of downtown decline, but simply a circumstance of Target buying out Zellers and the downtown location not being part of the acquisition. 
Indeed, our downtown is on a roll. Significant revitalization efforts over the last eight years are unprecedented, and no doubt our downtown is on the cusp of the tipping point. But the challenges of attracting a grocer to our downtown and inner city are real. So too are solutions to expedite the process to recruit an urban grocer for our downtown.
For example, downtown Hamilton in Jackson Square, despite being smaller in size compared to downtown Winnipeg, will be home to a new supermarket in the spring of 2013 when Nations Fresh Food completes a $7-million renovation.  Nations’ full-service supermarket will cover 55,000 square feet. The company promotes itself as the store “where east meets west,” and carries a wide variety of international foods, a large fresh fish market, meat and deli counters, extensive fruit and vegetable markets, a large salad bar, an in-store bakery and prepared foods for eat-in and take-out. 
Not only does this store cater to the needs of the downtown community, its unique character makes it a destination, giving it the ability to draw people from across the city during evening and weekends, capitalizing on the market within its trade area and outside of the downtown. The store even features grocery aisles named after countries throughout Southeast Asia and the West Indies, carrying the corresponding nations’ food products as a means of drawing immigrants and others to their store.
In June 2012 after two years of promoting, marketing and market analysis, and knocking on doors, Hamilton’s planning department proposed that the city offer a $650,000 grant as an incentive for a private company to build a store as a strategic downtown renewal effort. Their vision, hard work and bold action seemed to be enough for Nations Fresh Food supermarket to jump in ahead of their competitors and simply move forward, ultimately refusing the need for an incentive.
In Detroit, Seattle, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Boston, their downtowns were at one point struggling to go upscale and attract middle-class homeowners and home buyers, similar to the housing revival efforts in Winnipeg. These cities came to the same conclusion: that additional credibility was needed to accelerate the pace of housing renewal. To help market their downtowns as a desirable place to live, they pursued specialty grocers such as Whole Foods. The effect of Whole Foods is known by many as being a strong catalyst for change, giving downtown neighbourhoods much needed momentum towards building a strong, vibrant community.
Often a private/public sector approach is needed to make this happen quickly, given the “chicken and egg” scenario.  Investing in a grocer now in Winnipeg, instead of waiting, will protect the significant investments already made to stimulate housing, revitalize sidewalks and create new public spaces and generate confidence in the inner city.
Evidence also suggests that such a grocer will play a role in accelerating property values, which is a strategy to better market a neighbourhood on the verge of housing rebirth, as well as set in motion a series of events that can change a neighbourhood, and even attract other small retailers, shops and services — all essential elements of a bustling, vibrant downtown.
No doubt, everyone wants to see one or more grocery stores come downtown to serve people. These are some ways to quicken this process, which may not work in the local Winnipeg market, but judging by the success of other downtowns, it’s a risk worth taking, and the sooner the better.
(Stefano Grande is the executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.)