For the first time in four years, residents in Columbia’s Celia Saxon neighborhood will have a convenient, affordable grocery store serving their community.
Starting in January, the Columbia Housing Authority is leasing its 20,000-square-foot store on Harden Street near the Drew Wellness Center, just northeast of downtown, to a Miami- and Kansas City-based veterans business group. The company plans to open a Save-A-Lot grocery store in the space by the end of March.
The store has been vacant since the end of 2010, when the Food Fresh Market grocery store closed. The closing left a void in the middle- to lower-income neighborhood, where many residents rely on public transportation and have asked for a grocery store within walking distance.
Elizabeth Taylor, a 69-year-old Celia Saxon resident for the past three years and a lifelong Columbia resident, said she was “tickled pink” to hear of the new store.
“Especially to those of us that don’t have transportation, it would be a godsend,” Taylor said. “Because whatever I spend on groceries, I have to add at least $10 for transportation. ... It will be a savings because that’s $10 or more that we can apply to our limited incomes.”
The nearest grocery store is the Food Lion in Five Points, which is more than a mile away from the neighborhood, said Nancy Stoudenmire, director of the Columbia Housing Authority.
“The impact that a grocery store can have on a community in terms of health, in terms of well being, in terms of education – a grocery store can impact all of those things,” Stoudenmire said.
Honor Capital LLC will lease and manage the store, the first grocery it will open. Established this year by a group of Navy and Army veterans, Honor Capital has a mission to help veterans become small business owners and to help underserved communities by opening Save-A-Lot stores that provide fresh, affordable food.
Save-A-Lot worked with Honor Capital to identify the Harden Street store as a target location, among others around the country.
“There are apparently a lot of underserved areas in most of America,” said Jim Allen, president of Honor Capital. “When you start looking at the number of residents within one mile who don’t have vehicles, the number of single moms with children ... the numbers of people on some kind of nutritional supplement program or WIC, that site meets everything we look for in terms of filling an unmet need.”
Honor Capital plans to open six or seven stores around the country and in the Caribbean in 2015, Allen said, and as many as 30 by the end of 2017. No other locations in South Carolina are currently being targeted, Allen said, but “there appears to be some opportunity.”
Marcus Scarborough, a Navy veteran and graduate of Richland Northeast High School, will oversee the Columbia store as an Honor Capital regional vice president. He said the store will employ around 25 people from the community.
“To be afforded the opportunity be able to create jobs, to be able to impact in a direct and personal way the lives of so many people in that community, it’s just such a great feeling,” Scarborough said. “With all the housing authority has done to improve that area, this is kind of the last key thing.”
The Housing Authority received a $26 million federal grant in 1999 to revitalize the Celia Saxon neighborhood and construct 435 affordable housing units, according to Stoudenmire. In 2008, it opened the Food Fresh Market, which was run for its first 18 months by a Florence businessman who was recruited after the housing authority was unable to convince a national or regional chain to move in.
Succumbing to financial hardship in the midst of the Great Recession, the store closed Dec. 31, 2010.
“One of the biggest mistakes we made was that we didn’t have a grocery store with a brand-name identification,” Stoudenmire said. “Next to affordable housing, the biggest expense for families is groceries. And it just can cause such an impact on your life. And that’s one of the reasons the housing authority wanted to get this grocery store back in this community.”
Save-A-Lot specializes in offering fresh produce and meats at prices up to 40 percent lower than other grocery stores. It has more than 1,300 stores nationwide, including one on Garners Ferry Road in Columbia and one on Airport Boulevard in West Columbia.