The city is closer to the market in the southeastern food desert local

TOLEDO — For the past six years, Leigh Miller hasn’t had to worry about buying fresh food or paying $1 for a banana at a gas station convenience store, even though her neighborhood was once known as a food desert.

The place where she now gets groceries is the Toledo Market on the Green, modeled after the market on Pontiac Street on Fort Wayne’s southeast side. Ohio Market was built in a place where grocery stores no longer existed; Healthy meats and fresh produce were not available within a few miles.

Prices at Market on Green are compatible with or cheaper than other, more distant grocery stores in the Toledo area.

“Absolutely, it was necessary,” Miller said. “Especially in these neighborhoods, these stores are segregated.”

The USDA defines food deserts as areas where residents without a vehicle are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket or at least 33% of the population lives more than 20 miles from a supermarket. Public-private partnerships like Market on the Green and Pontiac Street Market bring fresh and healthy food to neighborhoods like this.

Miller likes the prices, the convenience and the market on the Green’s commitment to carry goods from local businesses.

At 6,500 square feet, the store is larger and carries more groceries than a convenience store, but it’s smaller than many modern supermarkets. Market on the Green is more reminiscent of early 20th century corner stores.

The market includes a wide variety of produce, with more than five types of apples and three types of onions. The store’s sections feature locally baked goods, locally butchered meats, locally made beauty products and national, branded products. Market on the Green also carries ethnic foods, Amish prepared foods and local restaurant hot dogs, chili sauce and pickles.

“It’s just great to have a neighborhood grocery store in your neighborhood,” Miller said.

Fort Wayne City Council members are expected to vote Tuesday to create a partnership between the city and Parkview Regional Medical Center and Affiliates to create a similar market at 918 E. Pontiac St., the former site of the nonprofit Vincent Village. The council had planned to vote on the proposal on Dec. 20, but Councilman Glynn Hines asked at-large to table the matter so he could visit the Green Market.

Hines has traveled there twice, including Jan. 13 with Councilman Tom Didier, R-3rd. Hines said the local proposal has broad support on the council.

“I’m pretty sure most of us will vote for it,” Hines said.

Didier said he is ready to vote for the partnership in December and was impressed when he visited the Toledo market. He knows stores, having gained experience from his family’s days owning Didier Meats and 32 years at US Foods.

“It was an amazing amount of stuff for the size,” Didier said of the market. “The prices were all competitive. The choice was good.”

The idea for Pontiac Street Market came from Fort Wayne Community Development’s comprehensive Southeast Strategy Update study, said Nancy Townsend, Fort Wayne’s director of community development. The board approved the southeast project in January 2021.

Southeast residents told city officials that food insecurity and the lack of a grocery store are major concerns. Townsend said his department’s mission is to “take risks where there are risks.”

Financial commitment

Grocers operate on a small profit margin of about 4%, Townsend said.

City officials looked across the country for a model that could work in Fort Wayne. Then Brightpoint, a non-profit poverty alleviation organization, connected city officials with Market on the Green.

The Toledo store and the proposed Pontiac Street Market have more character than some siblings. They both partner with major medical providers in their area: ProMedica in Toledo and Parkview in Fort Wayne.

For Market on the Green, the nearest supermarket was more than 8 miles away, said Adrienne Bradley, Promedica’s director of community impact and social investment. In Fort Wayne, the closest store for most Southeast residents is a Kroger 2 miles away, said Elizabeth Webb, the city’s public information officer.

Didier said it wasn’t just grocery stores, but businesses in general, that began disappearing from southeast Fort Wayne after International Harvester closed operations in 1983. His family owned meat markets in the area, but the original and last Didier Meats on East Pettit Avenue since 1964 – closed in 2000. Other grocery stores in southeast Fort Wayne also closed.

Like Market on the Green, Pontiac Street Market will use an existing, vacant building. Townsend said the builders would put an addition on the existing building, but would make the proposed store more than 6,500 square feet.

Joel Mazur, a former Toledo brownfields development official, said his city’s main goal is to clean up the area and provide more green space by removing two other buildings on the block. While getting a grocery store in the area was one of the goals after the renovation, “it wasn’t at the forefront until the primary plan was successful,” he said.

Market on the Green did very well from the start, Bradley said. However, this is the first year Promedica expects the store to stop.

“The grocery store is not profitable,” Bradley said. “There’s a reason there’s no food desert.”

Store supervisor Stephanie Hamilton says the store’s biggest challenge has been supply chains. Some sections, including meat, were sometimes underfilled.

Bradley added, “Covid has been tough, too.” Despite having access to an online ordering program during the pandemic, most people preferred to walk into a store, he said.

Hamilton said he sees the same customers come in, sometimes twice a day.

Wilhelm Voet comes to the shop about once a week on his way home since the market opened. “I live nearby, so it’s convenient for me,” he said.

Voet likes the local beer and wine selections the store has carried over the past three years and misses the organic stuff the store used to have. He would like to see more selection, but it’s healthier than convenience stores, he said.

Sonny Drayton said he’s been shopping at Market on the Green for about a year, and he thinks it’s a must.

“Kroger and Walmart are a long way away,” he said. “They just have liquor stores all over the place,” he added, pointing to people around and people he doesn’t trust standing behind the building.

Arianna Patterson shops at Market on the Green for about a month, drawn to the fresh produce that inspires her to cook for her family.

The store changes what it carries based on community input. Organic foods were removed because they are too expensive for local residents who have low incomes. Local beers and wine were added to the selection two years later. The market also carries many local products and offers classes in cooking, finance and other life skills on its second floor.

If the Fort Wayne City Council approves the partnership with Parkview, it would include a five-year commitment from both to continue the Pontiac Street Market.

The city will be responsible for operational deficiencies in years one, two and three, Townsend said. Any deficit in years four and five will be split between Parkview and the city.

Other features:

Townsend said gathering community input on products and services for the Pontiac Street Market will be one of the highest priorities. City officials hope to eventually offer classes and a community gathering space on its second floor, but planning has not yet begun.

Hines said he wants classes in Fort Wayne that are similar to the ones he took in Toledo, especially the cooking classes.

“I think it’s as important as having a grocery store in a food desert,” he said.

Townsend said the city has found a pilot backer to cover any shortfall. He previously said the store needs to conservatively attract 2.5% of the area’s shoppers to cover operations. He noted that Pontiac Street Market would be more residential than Market on the Green, which is next to a business area.

Because Pontiac Street Market is also in a more residential area than Market of the Green, it will have more households to serve, he said. The Fort Wayne market will have 25,000 households in its service area and 10,000 within a five- to six-block radius.

Construction could begin in February as bids are in, Townsend said. The store could open in the fall, and the maximum guaranteed price was $3.4 million.

If approved, Fort Wayne and Parkview would split the cost, with the city using $2 million in federal USAID funding and $700,000 in local income tax money. The Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission has pledged another $700,000. Parkview must pay the local income tax amount and the redevelopment commission money within five years.

Parkview officials said in a statement that it has previously invested in improving food access and nutrition education through the Parkview Community Greenhouse and Learning Kitchen.

“Supporting the city in this new initiative will be a natural extension of those efforts,” the statement said.


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