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Ric Cavender, Dickinson Gould, Marc Weintraub: The East End really is a ‘food desert’

Charleston's East End, circa 2001: The commercial vacancy rate sits at 35.4 percent. Empty and dilapidated storefronts line Washington and Smith Streets. Crime is rampant. The only free-standing large grocery store closes its doors.

Fast forward to 2013: Today, the vacancy rate is 14.8 percent and falling, empty storefronts are filling up, and entrepreneurs are seizing new opportunities.

East End Main Street, with support from the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority and the city of Charleston, has assisted in the redevelopment of many properties through a deep mix of unique services and incentives for business owners.

A reputation as an unsafe neighborhood has been replaced by that of a lively destination for nightlife and entertainment.

The Clay Center and Appalachian Power Park anchor the district and grassroots development projects such as the East End Dog Park and the East End Bazaar sit on vacant and previously unused land, providing new destinations for the valley.

In spite of all of this positive development, transformation, and over $250 million dollars of public and private investment, one fact remains: Still no grocery store in the East End.

The term "food desert" is often applied indiscriminately, but there is a technical definition: a census tract that contains concentrations of low-income people in which at least a third of the population lives more than a mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

Contrary to editorial comments made in last week's Charleston Daily Mail, the East End is, in fact, a technical "food desert."

So why the recent resurgence of debate over the true "need" for a grocery store in the East End and the role local government plays in this process? Why, after thorough research was conducted by independent consultants hired with grant funds from Chase Bank confirming need and feasibility of a grocery store in this new economic and cultural climate, are we hearing questions about whether or not there is a market for such a development?

The answer is in the article on which the editorial is based - current businesses, which rightfully profit from the lack of a grocery store, do not want one built.

Fine, but they are not the only voices that matter.

During 2010, the independent consultants took the time to walk through the East End on both sides of Washington Street and conduct "front porch focus groups" with residents.

The response was clear: while Dollar General, Rite Aid, CVS, One Stop, and Capitol Market meet certain needs, the full breadth of affordable products that are needed can only be found in a large full-service grocery store or supermarket.

Doorknob surveys were hung on every door in the neighborhood. Consultants hoped for a 14 percent to 16 percent return of completed surveys and were astounded when more than 47 percent of the neighborhood took time to answer important questions regarding their food and grocery needs.

The study concluded, on the basis of well accepted statistical analysis, that the East End has substantial untapped buying power and an average-sized store could sustain itself and potentially generate $7 million to $10 million in revenues per year.

In short, having an extra aisle of chips and dip is not a replacement for a grocery store.

Any unfavorable market conditions that Fas Chek and Kroger walked away from in 1999 and 2001, respectively, have clearly been replaced

by a vibrant neighborhood

with passionate residents who share a very real sense of community.

Why should government get involved and attempt to stimulate the market?

As we wonder why West Virginia is consistently ranked near last nationally in measures of general health, well being, obesity, and other preventable diet-related illness, a lack of access to healthy food must be considered.

There is no better illustration of this than the neighborhood surrounding our state Capitol.

Much of the vacant land on the East End is owned by the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority.

Using that resource to support the private market, putting publicly owned land back on the tax rolls and helping to establish a business that creates jobs, economic activity and additional tax base are all strong arguments in favor of government stimulation.

Developers, small and large business owners, residents, and government officials can all agree that the East End is a great place to make a sound investment. The last 10 years have proved that what was once thought to be impossible can happen through creative partnerships, a lot of hard work, and following a collective vision.

Recruiting a full-service grocery store or supermarket is something that must be done to ensure the needs of all of our residents can be met, and to provide another anchor destination that will continue the ongoing revitalization of Charleston's oldest and most diverse neighborhood and business district.

Cavender is executive director of Charleston East End Main Street Gould is the president of its board. Weintraub, a city councilman, is vice president of the board and chairman of its grocery store task force. All are East End residents.


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