Another convenience store is the last thing Diane Wiley wants in north Columbia.
But when the Piggly Wiggly grocery on West Beltline Boulevard shut down last summer, convenience stores and dollar stores became the only nearby food options for many people in Wiley’s Belvedere neighborhood, Booker Washington Heights, and others nearby.
Mainstream grocery stores are “not coming in our neighborhood ... because there’s no money there,” Wiley said. “But on the other end ... as long as we have convenience stores, the neighborhood’s going down.”
Her neighbors need fresh, affordable food, not just the processed food found in convenience stores. But beyond that, they want new economic life in their community.
“Why is it so hard to get something done in our neighborhood?” Wiley said. “If we’re going to be a good city, be a good city for everybody.”
“Something” might be on the way: a new kind of grocery store that also could be a catalyst for revitalization.
A project to build a cooperative, or co-op, grocery store owned by a collection of community members is getting a push forward from city leaders. But it will take investment financially and emotionally by residents to make it happen.
Meeting their own needs
From the window of her Cooperative Ministries office on West Beltline, Wanda Pearson used to see people walking to and from the old Piggly Wiggly.
Now that the store’s closed, it’s at least a mile and a half to the nearest store with fresh produce and other basics. With many folks in the area on low and fixed incomes and without reliable transportation, they’re left in a state of food insecurity, bordering on becoming what’s known as a food desert.
It’s not an uncommon situation in Richland County, where nearly 1 in 5 people at times lacks access to either enough food or sufficiently healthy food, according to Feeding America.
“What does that say to people when the grocery store’s gone, the bank’s gone?” Pearson said.
Along with Wiley, she’s on a committee that’s laying the groundwork for the co-op grocery store.
“The amenities people take for granted, if they’re not in your neighborhood, that can leave you feeling some kind of way,” Pearson said. “To the extent we can reverse that, neighborhoods we’re looking to serve would have the same amenities as everyone else.”
The amenities people take for granted, if they’re not in your neighborhood, that can leave you feeling some kind of way.
The plan for the grocery co-op is to get about 1,000 people to buy in as co-owners for around $100 or $200 apiece. Each co-op member will have an equal vote in how the store is run, from the hiring of a general manager to decisions like the mix of foods that will be sold.
Anyone, not just members, could shop there. The store likely would offer a balanced mix of fresh foods and conventional items such as boxed and canned goods, said Tina Herbert, director of the city’s office of business opportunities. Her office is helping get the co-op concept off the ground.
Food co-ops usually are set up to satisfy communities’ desire for something they don’t have, such as an organic market, Herbert said.
But to meet a true need? That goal makes the West Beltline concept different from almost any other model in the country, she said.
A city-owned development corporation owns a piece of land off West Beltline Boulevard and Farrow Road near the Colony Apartments, where the grocery store would be located. The co-op members likely would finance startup costs of the store – possibly $1 million to $2 million – with a loan, Herbert said. Optimistically, Herbert hopes the store could open within two years.
It’s hoped the financial buy-in will come from both residents of the nearby neighborhoods and from folks across the city and beyond, Herbert said. Some sort of payment plan could be offered to give lower-income residents – who make up a large portion of the target community – an opportunity for membership.
A catalyst for revitalization
One key to encouraging buy-in will be helping people understand the true value of what they’re investing in, said Mayor Steve Benjamin, a strong supporter of the grocery co-op concept and potential development around it.
“The psychology of this – it’s not just a grocery store. It’s our store,” Benjamin said. “This is a store where I’m earning more than a living wage. ... I own this place and it’s a central place of helping rebuild my community. I think it’s going to make it the heart of the community in more ways than one.”
Ownership will give community members a sense of empowerment and pride that will encourage them to take care of and self-police the business they’ve invested in, Herbert said.
I think it’s going to make it the heart of the community in more ways than one.
Mayor Steve Benjamin
The grocery co-op is just one element of a big-picture revitalization effort the city is working on for the West Beltline corridor.
Other moves on the horizon:
▪ More development branching from the grocery co-op, potentially including an urban farm, park and sports fields.
▪ A $15 million city utilities and engineering facility being built near the closed Piggly Wiggly, eventually bringing hundreds of city employees to the community every day.
▪ A community center, park and police station planned for Busby Street at the base of the James E. Clyburn walking bridge over I-277.
▪ Facade improvement to boost the appearance of buildings on Two Notch Road between Covenant Road and Cushman Drive.
▪ A commercial training kitchen planned on West Beltline where community members can gain home and, potentially, professional skills.
For the people who “have lived and have worked to build that community over the decades, this is, I believe, a tip of the hat to them, that we believe in this community,” Benjamin said. “We’ll continue to work to build this community.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.