Candice Bruno was excited when she saw the JumboFresh Supermarket sign on the former Price Rite building in Southwest Baltimore. For nearly a year, the building in the Mount Clare Junction shopping center has been empty, and Bruno and others have had to go outside the neighborhood for groceries.
“It was an important force in the neighborhood that took care of many people, especially lower-income and [those with] ethnic backgrounds,” said Bruno, the owner of Old Major bar and event space in Pigtown.
Though the JumboFresh Supermarket’s sign hints at “coming soon,” details about the grocer’s move-in date haven’t been shared. Nonetheless, several nearby residents and business owners are excited about the chance to have a nearby grocery store again.
“I think that having a grocery store again that is affordable for residents is going to be a big help,” said Bruno.
Councilwoman Phylicia Porter said getting a grocery store into a neighborhood is no easy feat. At least four different grocers turned down the opportunity to move into the shopping center, citing public safety, economic vitality, and the lack of nearby housing, Porter said.
“For a local grocery store, it cannot be opened in a neighborhood where the number of households is really small. If it’s really small, that’s just not going to be economically viable,” said Bobby Zhou, associate professor of marketing with the Robert H. Smith Business School at the University of Maryland.
The area didn’t have the socioeconomic status to bring in some of the larger grocery store chains, Porter said. Grocery stores already have small profit margins. The predicament made her rethink options and target a smaller grocery store choice.
“It was actually really intense, because it really didn’t come down to serving people and making food accessible to neighborhoods. It really came down to really how to grow an economic landscape for this particular grocer option to come in,” said Porter.
The inability to make the Price Rite financially viable was noted as the main reason it closed after operating for 10 years. The closure was deemed a loss to residents because it not only limited food access, but required people to venture farther for groceries. Over 30% of households in the city’s 9th District, which includes Mount Clare, do not have a vehicle, according to a 2018 report from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future. The closest grocery store is a Food Depot in the Westside Shopping Center, over a mile away. The same report also noted that nearly 1 in 4 Baltimore residents live in areas with limited access to healthy and affordable food.
Bruno partners with Food Rescue Baltimore and 4MyCiTy to hold a food giveaway every Thursday at Old Major, where people often line up for hours to get produce, meats, snacks and other offerings, she said.
Over the past year, a $1.5 million incentive was raised to attract a grocer to the Mount Clare Junction shopping center, Porter said. It’s capital that can assist with buying new supplies like refrigerators or to renovate facilities. The money is a combination of local and state grants, including $200,000 from the South Baltimore Gateway Partnership.
Brad Rogers, executive director of South Baltimore Gateway Partnership, said they applied for a grant through the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development to support their contribution. He’s also proud of the state and local collaboration that helped make this happen.
“This has been a team effort and I want to highlight that as indicative of the success you can have when everybody is working toward the same goal. This wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t all able to pull together like this,” Rogers said.
The city is also providing grant money through the Casino Local Impact Fund program, which uses funds from tax on video lottery terminals at Maryland casinos and is meant to benefit communities near the casino in South Baltimore, said Chris Firehock, a community development grants specialist with the department of planning.
The owner of JumboFresh Supermarket declined to comment about the store because he said felt it wasn’t the time.
There are also plans to fill out the shopping center with other tenants, Porter said. The former Price Rite building is currently neighbored by an Octapharma Plasma site and a DTLR clothing store.
“We really have to come up with policy solutions that anchor those institutions and those assets in the area because if not, they’re just stand-alone and then they don’t have the economic vitality to stay in the neighborhood,” Porter said, adding that she’s also going to make sure the store has direct contact to her office. She believes issues with the Price Rite could have been addressed before they closed if her office had known sooner.
Kim Lane, executive director of Pigtown Main Street, said the attempt to find solutions for the Price Rite closure seemed to fade as months passed, but she’s happy there are plans to embrace the new tenant.
“They’re filling a great need, and we first and foremost care about getting people fed. We will do anything possible to make sure they are successful,” Lane said.
For others, like Kintira Barbour, president of the Mount Clare Community Council, the hope is that the new grocer can represent the potential of the neighborhoods it will serve.
“I do hope that it signals out to other companies and retailers that there’s a growing population in this area,” Barbour said.