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Revival: Grocery, credit union open after 5 years

After nearly five years of recruiting, a grocery store and credit union are moving into the Celia Saxon neighborhood, bringing economic development to an area often snubbed by other businesses.

The grocery and credit union are the finishing touch to a long effort toward revitalizing the community, said Columbia City Councilman E.W. Cromartie.

Three public housing projects are within walking distance of the new shopping center, and it is close to Benedict College and Allen University.

“It serves the needs of the community,” Cromartie said. “A lot of people in the area do not have transportation. We’re providing a nice place to shop.”

The 20,000-square-foot Columbia Food Fresh Market will be a full-service grocery, selling everything from fresh meat and produce to the usual non-perishable fare. And it will have a deli. The store is scheduled to open on Harden Street in September, said Gilbert Walker, executive director of the Columbia Housing Authority.

“It will be a top-of-the-line store, and we’re planning on it being successful,” Walker said. “We know it will upgrade this neighborhood.”

AllSouth Federal Credit Union also will open a branch in the shopping plaza. And Walker said the housing authority is recruiting other businesses, including a restaurant and dry cleaners.

The $5 million Celia Saxon Center shopping plaza will be owned and managed by the Columbia Housing Authority Development, a nonprofit arm of the housing authority.

The Food Fresh Market will be owned and operated by Florence businessman Neil Patel, who owns a grocery store and five convenience stores in the Pee Dee.

“Columbia is a bigger place than Florence and a good opportunity,” Patel said last week.

Audrey Brown, AllSouth’s marketing vice president, said the credit union was sold on the site after a tour and 10-minute conversation with housing authority representatives.

“We saw it as a perfect fit for us to serve not only the residents but our members who work downtown and in that area,” Brown said.

Mable Craft, 79, who lives on nearby Oak Street, said the neighborhood has come a long way since the old barracks-style Celia Saxon public housing was torn down.

“It’s much quieter,” she said. “The grocery will be a big asset to the neighborhood.”

The housing authority tried to recruit a grocery store to the area for nearly five years. It courted large grocery store chains that already had a presence in the Midlands but couldn’t find anyone interested, Walker said.

Grocery stores operate on slim profit margins, and most shy away from low-income areas, especially when other stores in the neighborhood have failed. When the Food Lion on Taylor Street closed in 2006, industry experts said it was unlikely anyone else would risk opening in the neighborhood.

Plus, the housing authority’s shopping plaza offers a smaller space than what most chains seek for new stores, Walker said.

“All of the big chains that we have gone to want 30,000 to 40,000 square feet,” he said. “Our whole shopping center isn’t that big.”

Patel believes his store will be a success. The store should lure drivers off Harden and other downtown streets, he said.

“It’s not going to be a low-end grocery store,” he said. “We expect all kinds of people to come in.”

Walker said housing authority officials have been adamant about the quality of store they want.

“We’re going to make sure when people come in this store, it’s going to be clean and people will be well-respected,” Walker said. “There won’t be any panhandling. We’re not going to have any of that.”

The new store already is creating a buzz in the neighborhood. Not only do residents look forward to a grocery store within walking distance, but many hope to land jobs at the store, too.

Marqail Bookert, 21, who lives in the nearby Allen Benedict Court public housing development, said he applied for a part-time job. He has a full-time job but said it would be nice to walk to a second job near his home.

Walker said the housing authority received 500 applications for 59 jobs at the store.

The grocery store is participating in a job training program in a partnership with the housing authority, said Donna Gilbert, the housing authority’s director of resident programs.

About 20 residents will spend two weeks in classrooms, learning job skills, and will then work in the store to train as assistant managers and managers.

The goal is for the residents to take those skills and find jobs at other retail outlets in the city. A new crop of trainees will replace them once the class has graduated.

The housing authority has operated a similar training program for 12 years at the Dollar General store in the Celia Saxon neighborhood, Gilbert said.

Whether or not Bookert gets the job, he plans on being a regular at the store.

“I’ll probably be the first one through the door when it opens,” he said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.