Among the many factors that had to come together to make the goal of a grocery store in north Tulsa a reality, a simple friendship was perhaps one of the more important elements.
City leaders announced last week that local businessman Antonio Perez would be opening the Gateway Market in mid-January at the corner of Pine Street and Peoria Avenue in a site formerly occupied by Albertsons, concluding a two-year effort to return a supermarket to north Tulsa.
Those involved with the effort hailed the development as a major victory, one that occurred only after a series of false starts and disappointments.
"This is hugely significant," said Casey Stowe, chairman of the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization charged with promoting and sustaining small business growth in Tulsa that played a key role in brokering the deal. "This project is going to bring a significant amount of retail life back to that node at Pine and Peoria. More important, it's going to bring the essential service of a grocery store back to that area."
North Tulsa has been without a supermarket since 2007, when Albertsons closed its Pine and Peoria location, placing thousands of residents in the position of having to travel several miles for groceries.
Since then, community leaders have worked hard to find a new grocer to take over the site. A number of deals with potential grocers were discussed, but none of them were closed.
It wasn't until several months ago, when Stowe--vice president of commercial lending at ONB Bank and Trust--approached his longtime client Perez--owner of Las Americas, a chain of full-service Mexican grocery stores in Tulsa. From that point on, a solution to the problem finally began to take shape.
"I've known him for years and been his banker for years," Stowe said. "When it all clicked and came together, it was a real 'a-ha' moment for all of us. It was an excellent fit."
Perez said he had never considered the possibility of opening a store in north Tulsa before Stowe pitched the idea to him.
"At first, I actually wasn't too excited," he said. "I had heard a lot of bad things about the neighborhood, and I didn't think it would be a good place for me to be."
But Perez decided to give the site a look and quickly realized he was laboring under a false impression. The building itself was beautiful, with new equipment, he said, and the area wasn't bad at all. And the lack of competition makes it especially appealing, he said.
The availability of $2.2 million in Community Development Block Grant funds assigned to the project was crucial, Stowe said. That money allowed officials to offer Perez financing at terms that were far more attractive than any deal that a bank could have put together, he said.
"This was not a project he was looking to do before he was approached about the favorable financial terms," he said, an assertion that Perez confirmed.
Even so, Stowe is the first to admit the success the TEDC had in helping put the deal together was built on the shoulders of others who worked to find a solution for a long time before his organization got involved earlier this year.
"The story starts long before Antonio became involved," Stowe said.
"There are so many pieces to this puzzle, if any of them were not in place, it would not have worked."
District 1 City Councilor Jack Henderson, a strong proponent of the need for a store in the area, welcomed the news.
"I think it's long overdue--so that makes it right on time," he said, laughing.
Henderson cited the hardship north Tulsans faced by having to travel so far to shop and said he believes the Gateway Market will make a lot of difference.
"It's going to make money and create jobs for the community," he said. "This is the best thing that's happened (in the area) in a long time, with a lot of other improvements coming down the pike."
Henderson emphasized that the efforts of many people were integral in making the store a reality, particularly Dr. Lana Turner Addison of the North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative and Rose Washington Rentie, the TEDC executive director.
As pleased as they were with the announcement about the supermarket, supporters of the project were just as enthused about the prospects for the rest of the immediate area. A corresponding retail project, the Shoppes on North Peoria, is being engineered by TEDC and NTEDI, and officials hope to break ground on the project by summer.
"It's definitely going to be a symbiotic relationship between the two," Stowe said of the Gateway Market and the Shoppes on North Peoria, which is expected to consist of 10 start-up retail outlets and has drawn $1.2 million in public funding. Stowe said the Shoppes on North Peoria will create 50 new jobs, which--combined with the 70 people expected to be hired at the Gateway Market--will result in 120 new jobs.
Mike Bunney, the mayor's chief economic development officer, echoed Stowe's assessment of the synergy the two projects will create.
"The combination of the grocery store and the Shoppes on Peoria will have a positive impact on that part of Tulsa that I don't think you can (overestimate)," he said.
Bunney pointed to several things that helped set the stage for the completion of a deal to open a new store.
"The main thing that had to be overcome was to prove to the grocery community that a store was viable from a pure business standpoint," he said.
Employing some TIF money that had been set aside for the project, officials solicited a survey from Associated Wholesale Grocers in the summer of 2008 that explored the demand for a grocery store in the area. Bunney said approximately 300 residents participated in the survey.
"They came up with a document that validated the need for a grocery and showed the marketplace was out there," he said, categorizing the survey as "a pretty doggone persuasive document that the product was viable. When we showed it to grocers, they immediately understood they could make this work."
Bunney said another crucial element was making sure the location remained in local hands once it was sold by Albertsons.
"We were lucky to get somebody locally (Omega Alpha Development LLC) interested in developing it," he said.
But Bunney, Henderson and Stowe all credited the City Council's approval of $2.2 million in CDBG funds for the project as a lynchpin.
"They provided the funds to make this a reality," Henderson said. "I just wanted to thank them for listening to me when I asked them to support it. And Mayor (Kathy) Taylor supported it from the start."
The opening of the Gateway Market represents a major step forward for those working to bring an end to the proliferation of "food deserts"--areas in which residents have no access to a nearby grocery store--throughout north and west Tulsa. But it doesn't solve the problem, they say.
"Not at all," said state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, who is conducting an interim legislative study on the best ways to offer incentives to healthy corner grocery stores and encourage them to move into underserved areas. "While we were looking to solve this issue, we came across the deeper roots of the problem. This store gets to the top part of the issue, and it presents employment opportunities. But secondarily, there is a larger market that still needs to be fed."
Scott Smith--owner of the Blue Jackalope, a small corner market located just west of downtown Tulsa in the Crosbie Heights neighborhood and a strong supporter of Scott's initiative--was pleased to hear about the opening of the Gateway Market. But he questioned how much of an impact it would have for those who don't live nearby.
"It's really not that significant. This has just been a focal point, really, for the community in terms of equality. The real thing about this is, it's not serving that many more people," he said, citing the likely inaccessibility of the new store for many of those who live in the Northgate neighborhood at 63rd Street North and Cincinnati.
Jamie Jameson, a local developer who has described Tulsa's food desert situation as shocking and who espouses the use of farmers markets as one means of combating the problem, doesn't believe those struggling to bring change to Tulsa's underserved areas can simply declare victory with last week's announcement.
"I totally agree with that diagnosis," he said. "This is only one store in one place ... We have got to make these kinds of stores viable. If people can't walk to them, their viability is always under threat, especially if they're located in an area like north Tulsa, where incomes are often much lower.
"In the long term, we have to address that. We have to make life more affordable for people in north Tulsa, partly through mass transit. One store is only the beginning. By practice and necessity, this is big, but it's not everything. We have to use it as a way to focus on all the issues and develop real strategies."
Smith believes neighborhood stores like his--which serves as a community gathering spot, in addition to selling groceries--are the long-term answer.
"There is a community-building aspect that is key to that that you don't experience with major retail," he said.
That's exactly the kind of solution Scott has been trying to achieve, along with state Rep. Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, the other leader of the interim legislative study. In fact, on Nov. 14, just before the opening of the Gateway Market was announced, Scott led a bus tour of potential healthy corner store locations. Scott described the sites as places where a mom-and-pop store would be well suited, and he said each of them has served as the home for a restaurant or retail location in the past.
"When we finished the tour, it was like, 'Whew!' " he said. "We covered a lot of ground."
The tour did not consist merely of wishful thinking. Scott said within the next year, there is a good chance five such small, neighborhood markets will open in underserved areas. He said the locations for those stores include 56th Street North and Cincinnati, and 36th Street North and Cincinnati, as well as a store in the Brady Heights neighborhood between Denver and Cheyenne.
He also said he's been working with area schools to pursue the idea of student-led corner stores and pointed to the creation of a commercial greenhouse at McLain High School for Science and Technology as a noteworthy development.
Scott believes coming up with a workable distribution model is the key to making the healthy corner stores initiative work. Smaller grocers, who order in lesser volumes from wholesalers because of their comparative lack of shelf space, usually find themselves at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to matching supermarket selection and prices. Smith has suggested that perhaps such stores could form an alliance and place much larger orders, retrieving their individual merchandise from a centrally located distribution center.
"We want these stores to have products on their shelves that are competitive," Scott said. "That really requires thinking outside the box."
If a handful of smaller stores does open across the area during the next year, that would begin to address the dearth of accessible shopping opportunities for many residents. But even Smith acknowledges the Gateway Market still has a major role to play in eliminating the problem.
"All my bitching aside, corner stores don't work without a supermarket presence," he said. "Supermarkets keep the variety that people want."
And he credits Perez for being willing to invest in the area.
"I think it's a great victory for north Tulsa to have someone finally come in and open a major operation like this, especially considering the bad press the former store closing brought about," Smith said.
Others believe there is little question Perez has the background and know-how to make the Gateway Market work.
"If anyone is qualified to make it a success, it's Las Americas, someone who has made a go of inner-city sites," Jameson said. "I'm most encouraged. This is great news for north Tulsa. It can be an anchor for an increasingly walkable, accessible neighborhood for people of all physical abilities."
Stowe said Perez seems intent on meeting the community's needs.
"He is an excellent businessman, and he will offer quality products, good customer service and a clean facility," he said. "He'll offer products people want to buy. There was a lot of talk about the former operator (of that site) not offering products people wanted to buy. That is something Antonio is very much in tune to. He's adamant about having a constant dialog in the community."
Perez said he's looking forward to opening the Gateway Market. He plans on having a job fair at the store in early December and will begin hiring the staff. He's pleased the store has been welcomed the way it has, but he acknowledged that this is less about altruism than it is about taking advantage of a good business opportunity.
"I think a lot can be done not only for me, but for the community," he said.
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