It’s counterintuitive to us that for all the growth happening, the 55-block area considered downtown Greeley doesn’t contain a full-service grocery store.
That’s what makes it a ‘food desert,’ according to officials who spoke with reporter Bobby Fernandez for our Feb. 9 story.
Convenience stores, drugstores, and small grocery retailers in the downtown area all stock some selection of food that could be considered groceries. If you live downtown without access to reliable personal transportation, you might try to make it work with what’s available to you within walking distance.
However, in many cases what’s available in those retailers is less fresh, healthy and affordable than what you’d find in a full-service grocery store.
Since the closure of the downtown Safeway store nearly six years ago, no complete solution to this issue has emerged.
Ideally, filling the gap wouldn’t require intervention from government agencies. We’d like to think that an enterprising grocer would see the growth happening downtown and jump on the opportunity to tap into the market.
In reality, though, that has not proven to be the case. Thus, we think some creative thinking is necessary.
Grocery stores have some of the lowest margins in the retail industry, typically averaging around one to three percent per item. Consequently, they make money on volume—the more customers they serve, the better. Although downtown Greeley is growing, we can understand why grocers might not see the value in establishing themselves in the area—far west Greeley, where new homes are being built and household incomes are typically higher, may be more innately attractive to grocers who need to maximize their profitability.
The question then becomes, what can be done to make downtown more attractive for a supermarket?
One solution often proposed for the issue of food deserts is offering tax breaks. And while tax breaks can work to attract new business to an area in the right situation, they’re time limited. We don’t think tax incentives will be enough to address the long term need for a grocer in the downtown Greeley area. Once they run out, if the business isn’t economically viable on its own without the incentives it closes up shop.
That doesn’t mean that we think government doesn’t have a role to play in addressing the need. One big challenge is location: what lot or existing building in downtown Greeley is available and is large enough to accommodate a grocery store’s needs? We’d encourage government and private entities to explore how they could work together to find the right space for a grocer.
We also like the sound of what Ben Snow, director of Greeley’s department of economic health and housing, proposed. Snow’s suggested approach is targeting smaller grocers that would still be able to offer a diverse and affordable selection of fresh food for residents, but might be a better fit for the downtown area’s population and geography. We’d like to see his team execute a proactive plan to find those types of grocers and pitch them on downtown Greeley. Maybe a hybrid business model, like a supermarket that also includes a small restaurant, would be a great option.
Taxpayer funding is what sustains the economic health and housing department, and working on this type of initiative is what we think citizens should expect the department to take the lead on.
Plus, we can’t leave out Upstate Colorado, the public/private nonprofit economic development corporation charged with attracting and sustaining Weld County’s primary employers. Upstate administers funding available through city, county, and federal governments that is designed to bring major employers to our area and keep them here. Those are taxpayer supported funds too, and we think it’s reasonable to expect them to be utilized strategically by Upstate to meet the needs of our community, like the need for a downtown grocer.
And while current options may be limited, we’d also encourage downtown residents to continue to take advantage of what they do have available. In particular, supporting locally owned businesses that offer groceries will help sustain those options, especially if a full-service grocer is still several years away, as it seems it might be.