NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The Northside Food Co-op, in partnership with the county, will break ground on its long-planned grocery store for the Northside community next year. The neighborhood has lacked access to a full-service grocery store within a 1-mile walking distance for more than three decades.
Based on data from the USDA, the Northside is one of eight food deserts in New Hanover County, meaning there’s restricted access to nutritious, affordable groceries.
According to the city, the Northside — though an unofficial designation — is considered the downtown area bounded by the Cape Fear River to the west, Market Street to the south, N. 17th Street to the east and Smith Creek to the north. The population is roughly 26,000, with a per capita income of $26,328 based on a recent market study by Columinate — consultants specializing in food co-ops and nonprofits — contracted by the Northside Food Co-op.
Organizers joined in 2017 to plan the Northside Food Co-op, envisioned as a self-sustaining business to help end food insecurity, and incorporated in 2020.
After the New Hanover High School shooting in August, New Hanover County searched for ways to provide resources to underserved communities in an effort to curb violence. In January, commissioners voted to invest $2.5 million into the Northside Food Co-op’s vision as part of a violence action plan.
The grocery store will be operational by the end of 2024. Northside Food Co-op strategic partnership coordinator Cierra Washington will assume the role of project manager starting June 1, replacing Evan Folds.
“The hard part of building a grocery store in a food desert, especially a co-op, is behavior change,” Washington said. “Even if you build the store, there is no guarantee people will change their behaviors, even if they have a store close by.”
One way she and her colleagues are working to ensure interest is by offering $100 memberships to the co-op, even before doors are opened.
“If people feel monetarily bought into the mission and vision of the co-op, and on top of that have emotional and work stake in the game by participating in the farmers market or committees, there’s a greater chance of behavioral change to be more invested in shopping at the store,” Washington explained.
Right now, the co-op has roughly 530 members, which puts the organization halfway to its goal.
“Most co-ops like to have 1,000 members before opening their doors,” Washington said.
Membership comes with various advantages, including being a partial owner of the grocery store. Those who buy-in can join a committee or the board of directors, take advantage of investment opportunities and discounts, and assist with the co-op’s other initiatives.
Aside from membership fees, the co-op is currently working with a limited budget, with $200,000 awarded from Novant Health and $165,000 from the city’s American Rescue Plan Act money.
Columinate is helping the nonprofit project future expenses and revenue once the grocer opens. Consultant Don Moffit will help the co-op determine how much food to buy and staff to employ, Washington explained.
Based on population and median income, the market study forecasts the store to generate $2.24 million in first-year sales and roughly four years to establish a regular shopping base.
The co-op and county recently announced the location for the future store: a 2.35-acre lot on the northern portion of 901 Fanning St., city-owned property. The county has requested the city donate the land and rezone it for grocery store operations. The city is also working to subdivide the tract for the store, a process that should be complete by summer.
Its location was chosen so it remains accessible to residents living in the area who may not have a vehicle. The co-op has also been coordinating with Wave Transit about potential transportation options for those who live farther away.
To ensure the safety of individuals utilizing the roads to the grocery store, the co-op is studying infrastructure and lighting. It’s launching a “citizens science project,” encouraging residents to film their routes to the store — biking, walking or driving — to provide an overview of sidewalk and road conditions and identify other potential needs.
“It’s another real way for community members to have input in this process,” Washington said.
At this time, the county will pay $300,000 to design and $2.2 million to construct the 6,000-square-foot building. The Northside Food Co-op will then operate and manage the store, which will offer traditional grocery items including a deli, bakery, beer and wine, grab-and-go-selections, and health and beauty products.
Columniate’s market study does not recommend offering household goods or paper products; it’s assumed many residents will seek these items at dollar stores, often able to offer lower prices. There is a Dollar General 1.1 miles from the future grocery store at 250 N. Water St. and a Family Dollar 0.7 miles away, located at 1013 Market St. The nearest full-service grocery store is Food Lion at 1929 Oleander Dr., located about a mile from the outskirts of Northside.
Dollar stores stock private-label brands and buy in massive bulk to offer lower prices, according to a 2021 article by Consumer Reports. Often, these prices dissuade other grocers from building nearby.
Washington said the county has expressed potential commitment to make up any revenue losses in the first few years of operation.
“The grocery business in general is not super profitable,” Washington said. “Profit margins are pretty slim, so those first couple years are critical in a point of sustainability.”
County spokesperson Alex Riley said the county will determine how much it allocates each year in supplemental funds once it hires a consultant and outlines a business plan.
The county released a request for qualifications April 19 for a consultant to assist with conceptualizing, designing and managing the store. Applications are due Friday, and the county and co-op will together sift through, interview potential candidates and move forward with a contract by the summer.
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