Though it has been promised before, it looks like the City of Chester will finally get a grocery store after more than 11 years of being what Bill Clark calls a “food desert.”
Clark, executive director of the region’s largest food bank, Philabundance, hosted local, state and federal legislators and members of the public at a ground-breaking ceremony Thursday morning at the future site of Fare and Square, the nation’s first nonprofit grocery store.
Chester has been without a grocery store since the West End Market closed in August 2001. The new venture will be located in the same space at Ninth Street and Trainer Avenue.
“In the spring, a new grocery store will open right here in the City of Chester,” Clark said. “We’ve come a long way in a project that will be a game-changer.”
The store will be operated by Philabundance, but will create 25 to 30 new jobs. Store Manager Noah Langnas said hires will be made from within Chester whenever possible.
“That’s 25 or 30 job opportunities we’ve never had in this community,” said state Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-159, of Chester.
Fare and Square, a members-only store, will provide access to healthy foods at affordable prices. Membership is free and open to anyone. Those that can demonstrate a need can be enrolled in a special rebate program where 10 percent of their purchases will be refunded in the form of “Fare and Square Bucks.” The vouchers can be used toward future purchases at the store. The healthy food distributor will fill a much-needed gap according to some of the gathered officials.
“It’s a healthy alternative for our citizens,” said Chester Mayor John Linder.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had a challenge here in providing an affordable, healthy access to food,” state Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-9. of Chester said. “This is something the citizens of the City of Chester have been waiting a long time for.”
The 13,000-sqaure-foot store will feature a produce cooler near the front of the store, along with a meat department and seafood space, and dry goods along the back wall.
“We’re not going to be the health police, but we will try to offer some healthier options,” Langnas said.
The nonprofit aspect of the endeavor will ensure that prices are affordable and that customers in need will be able to buy staples at a bargain.
“What we’re all about is trying to stretch the customer’s food dollars,” Langnas said. “The prices will be as low as possible. If we make a profit, we’ll lower prices.”
The project took seven years of brainstorming, planning, testing and maneuvering to become a reality, Clark said, and it was done with the help of many in the community. At Thursday’s groundbreaking, Sunoco CEO Brian MacDonald presented a check for $200,000 to Philabundance, half of which is earmarked for capital needs at the store. More than 100 other supporters donated anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000 to make the store a reality.
Clark credited U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-1,of Philadelphia, with pushing the idea through, saying that the two met many times over the past few years, and that Brady “kicked my butt.”
“We were both kicking in the same direction,” Brady joked. “We all came together.”
Extensive renovations are set to begin next week. According to Langnas, the entire interior of the building will be gutted, leaving nothing but the existing exterior walls.
A Family Dollar store housed in the building will be reconfigured to turn the grocery store’s space from an L-shaped layout into a more manageable rectangular space. The six-month construction plan puts some pressure on the managers, who aim to open sometime in the spring.
“We’re up against it right now,” Langnas said.
Clark, whose organization distributes more than 20 million pounds of food in the region each year, said the problem of getting food to people who need it has become a larger issue than people not being able to afford food. Fare and Square aims to address both problems.
“A store like this is as much a food access solution as it is a hunger solution,” he said.
The store will serve as a testing range for the concept of nonprofit grocery stores, and Clark said he hopes the idea will be scalable for use in other areas with similar problems as Chester. He said the city is the perfect spot for the first store of its kind because the citizens need it and want it.
“At the end of the day, it won’t be Philabundance that makes this a success, it will be the people of Chester,” Clark said.
–The Associated Press contributed to this report