GLT is reporting this week on why west Bloomington is a food desert and how different community organizations are working to fill the gap. This is part four in the series.
In the 1970s, there were still a number of small groceries sprinkled throughout west side Bloomington neighborhoods. By the 1980s, nearly all those stores were gone. Some closed due to the normal course of business. Others could not compete when the west side Walmart opened off Interstate 55. Since then, west side residents have been asking for a full-service supermarket to move into the area, closer to homes.
Bloomington’s economic coordinator Austin Grammer said city officials have been trying to convince one of the large supermarket chains to do just that.
“The city is in frequent contact with retailers—your Krogers, your Aldis—or their designated real estate and marking teams, explaining the market potential out there,” Grammer said on GLT’s Sound Ideas.
The USDA identifies Bloomington as an official food desert, an area where residents don't have easy access to fresh, healthy foods. Most food deserts across America are located in low income or minority areas where many residents don’t have access to cars.
Grammer said there are significant economic and infrastructure barriers to overcome. Finding an appropriate site for a large supermarket near to the residential neighborhoods might prove difficult.
“If you’re talking about a Kroger, a Walmart or a Jewel, you are going to need a building on the size of 60,000 to 70,000 square feet and a parking lot to accommodate that size of a store,” Grammer said.
Smaller size grocery chains, such as Aldi or a Save-A-Lot, might require only about two acres or 20,000 square feet, and less parking space, he added.
Finding a tract that size could prove challenging, Grammer said.
“A few sites (on the west side) could potentially accommodate a store, but those are not necessarily clear sites or shovel ready,” he added.
Some sites that might work already have businesses on them, he said.
“That would require that user to relocate and we’d need a complete redevelopment of that site. It would all be very expensive,” Grammer said.
The large food chains also want to be in the vicinity of other retailers. The idea is that each store “feeds on the other,” Grammer said.
He described the outlook as “not impossible,” but difficult nonetheless.
“The city fully understands the need. It hears the residents and is working to solve the problem in a cost- effective manner ... If space becomes available in an existing shopping center, I will be on the phone.”
Grammer said short of convincing a supermarket chain to move into the area, the city can help by providing adequate access to public transportation so residents can get to the east side, where the big grocery chains are now concentrated.
“In this case, we have Connect Transit. Could it be better? That is a question,” Grammer said.
There are 10 large chain supermarkets located in the Veterans Parkway corridor on the east side of Bloomington-Normal. West side residents need cars to get to those stores, though bus transportation is an option.
Grammer said the concentration of stores along that corridor “goes to retailers’ desire to make a profit. They are very risk averse. They will say, if I go where everyone is already shopping, I am less likely to fail."
The large chains in that area of town include Kroger, Jewel, Meijer, Schnucks, Hy-Vee, Target, Walmart, Sam's Club, Fresh Market and Fresh Thyme.
The area is zoned to accommodate big box retailers, Grammer added.
He said the city could play an additional role by offering grocery chains tax incentives through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts, agreeing to sales tax rebates and helping to prepare a parcel of land for development.
At one time, the west side had several smaller grocery stores of 10,000 to 20,000 feet. IGA was on the west side and Aldi was in the Market Square shopping strip next to the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles office.
“Due to consumer demand for larger stores and better parking, those stores unfortunately left,” Grammer said.
Compounding recent efforts is the fact that food retailers have been experiencing a deflationary period. This has translated into lower grocery prices for consumers on many items.
“At the same time that hits at (grocers’) bottom line," Grammer said.
He noted that some large chains have rolled back plans to open new stores.
Kroger delayed a plan to close its College Avenue store for a larger site near Hershey Road. Kroger was once planning to open 300 new stores in various cities but has reduced that plan to about 50.
Grammer said the city has to balance addressing community demands with what makes economic sense.
“The city has to be careful it doesn’t become overzealous and make a case for a market where there isn’t one,” he said.
He noted that Peoria demolished some homes and offered tax incentives for a Cub Foods to move into an underserved area.
“Unfortunately, that store didn’t work out. It closed after being open only a few years,” Grammer said. “Now they have a large vacant strip mall and large vacant grocery store.”
He added that Bloomington’s efforts for the west side are “all going to depend on finding the right partner. Then I am sure the city would be willing to step in and help with the project if needed.”
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Grammer:
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