Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Cost escalates for Northside grocery store, county seeks partners for financial help

The county is estimating $7.3 million will be needed to fund the construction of the Northside grocery store planned for 900 North 10th St. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — As the county works through its proposed fiscal year 2024 budget, millions of dollars are being dedicated to the construction of a grocery store on the Northside of downtown Wilmington.

A collaborative effort among the city, county and Northside Food Coop, plans are still on track to break ground on a 6,000- to 8,000-square-foot structure sometime this year. The county has budgeted $7.3 million for it — a jump from its initial $2.15 million estimated last year.

READ MORE: Northside grocery store to break ground in 2023

“As the project has taken shape, more specifics are now known about what it will take to construct the building and have it ready for use as a grocery store, which has allowed county staff to better estimate the total cost,” county spokesperson Alex Riley said.

The store will be located at 900 North 10th St. on city-owned land that was donated to the effort in August 2022. County staff has identified the need to construct an additional road to connect Post Street to Anderson Street; the preliminary estimate is $1.2 million.

The $7 million will cover construction, equipment and initial inventory, as well as the road. The county is hoping to identify some public and private partners to offset a portion of the investment.

Vice chair of the board of commissioners, LeAnn Pierce, asked if the city was expected to partner in any other way on the effort, otherwise the county is on the hook for the full amount.

“I don’t want to expose that,” county manager Chris Coudriet responded at the budget session. “I don’t know what the manager is willing to recommend to the board, but there are other things we’re asking to them.”

The money will come from the county’s debt service, but will not be issued until the project goes out to bid for construction, still nearly a year out.

Coudriet told commissioners at the budget session he’s hoping to seek other investors to bring down the county’s total debt amount. 

For instance, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides grant opportunities to address food deserts. Also, major grocery store chains have charitable foundations that could be potential partners. 

The budget will likely need to be adopted before the grants are executed, Coudriet explained, with the $7-plus million in future debt included to “keep the project moving.”

“I can’t see us getting any kind of commitment before this budget is due to be voted on,” Pierce said. “I’m not against a grocery store concept at all, it’s the debt. That’s $912 per square foot. I understand that’s fully stocked but that’s a high number.”

It will be located in an area considered a food desert for 30-plus years. The community has been told a grocery store was on the way for decades, though multiple efforts failed in their attempts.

“We committed to the community we’re going to do this,” commissioner Jonathan Barfield said. “I think our citizens as a whole expect us to honor our word.”

The Northside grocery store is part of the county’s $28 million community building initiative, adopted last January.

Nine months ago, the county hired grocery consultant Seven Roots for $70,000 to assist Northside Food Coop with store planning and design, project management, equipment selection, communications and more. The consultant will stay on until the doors open, to assist with staff training, merchandising and operations.

Seven Roots is creating an initial schematic design for the proposed layout of the store, to be complete by July. The plans will help the county inform the exact square footage of the building. 

“So many things have to run parallel,” facilities director Sara Warmuth told commissioners during an April 27 budget session, “before I can inform an architect on how to design a building.”

The county will then send that plan to an architect for the final structure to be designed on the proposed framework, which could take six to eight months, according to Warmuth. A request for qualifications is being prepared by the county to send in the coming months. 

The Northside Food Coop will run day-to-day operations once the store is open. A memorandum of understanding between the county and Northside is currently in the works, according to Warmuth. It will outline exactly what role each entity is responsible for and also include a more precise schedule.

Northside’s board of directors is made up of local residents who have engaged with the community to shape the vision of the store.

Last year, the co-op held listening sessions — at DREAMS, Rankin Terrace, Solomon Towers and Tru Colors — from February to April to gather feedback on what people are interested in from the store. Thirty-seven percent of participants reported receiving government assistance and half made an income of $35,000 and below; 39% of African-American participants could not afford to eat balanced meals and 61% were worried whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more.

“Studies have been done on our food system and shown people in zip codes right next to each other have very different life expectancies based on access to food, healthcare,” Northside Food Coop project manager Cierra Washington said. “Honestly, that’s one of the reasons the county chose a coop as someone to partner with.”

Top priorities include ensuring the food is affordable, fresh, including local produce, and that there is an inviting atmosphere run by local employees.

Since the store will be community-owned, people need to feel invested in its creation, Washington said.

“We don’t want it to seem like this new, big thing that doesn’t fit our neighbors,” Washington told PCD last fall. “We know, naturally, as a new business coming in, we’re going to be seen as part of that gentrification. But we want to make sure the building itself is comfortable and what people see on the shelves, they’re used to seeing.”

Currently, the Northside co-op runs a farmers market every Saturday at 1019 Princess St. and the goal is to partner with some of those regional farmers to stock the store.

One of the challenges expressed by local residents, according to the listening sessions’ report and Washington, was lack of adequate transportation. Participants said the bus was inconsistent, stops were inconvenient and the waiting area was uncomfortable.

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization recently announced a change in its downtown rail trail corridor, connecting downtown to the Love Grove community, behind Screen Gems Studios. The 1.7-mile path will run alongside the future grocery store location, providing increased access to residents.

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