A Tulsa couple concerned about the lack of access to grocery stores for many north Tulsans has decided to take matters into their own hands and plans to open a small corner market in Brady Heights sometime next year.
Leah Pickard said she and her husband Justin hope to have the Latimer Store at 210 W. Latimer open by mid-summer 2010, though she said it could take longer than that, given the extensive renovation that must be completed on the property first.
"We bought a lot and four walls," she said, describing the condition of the building.
Pickard, 28, said the couple bought a house in north Tulsa a little more than a year ago--she's from Texas, although her husband, 29, is a Tulsa native--and has long had a desire to start a small grocery store after living in England and enjoying the corner markets that are commonplace there.
Pickard and her husband were visiting her brother-in-law in the neighborhood one day and happened to pass by the building. It immediately caught their attention.
"We thought, 'That's the cutest building we ever saw,'" she said.
A few weeks later, they were passing by again and saw a for sale sign on the building. Pickard and her husband inquired about its availability but were disappointed to discover that another local neighborhood grocer--Scott Smith, owner of the Blue Jackalope in Crosbie Heights--had beaten them to the draw.
Later, though, Smith withdrew from the project, and the building became available again. The Pickards wasted little time taking advantage of the situation.
"We ended up jumping on it," Pickard said, adding that the building reminded them of the small corner markets they had become accustomed to in England.
"We thought, 'Oh my gosh, that's our dream grocery store,'" she said.
Pickard described herself and her husband as community activists and Christians who are interested in a number of social issues, including the inaccessibility of affordable, healthy food for many north Tulsans and the lack of affordable home ownership options for those in low-income areas. The opportunity to open a corner market offering fresh, nutritious food was one they simply couldn't pass up, she said.
Pickard said she and her husband were educated about many of the problems facing north Tulsa by neighborhood activist Demalda Newsome of the North Tulsa Farmers Market. She said they are opening the market to help resolve some of those issues and not because they consider it a good economic opportunity.
"Oh, definitely--we're keeping our day jobs," she said. "I'm actually a stay-at-home mom most of the time, and (the store) is right around the corner from our house, so it'll be easy to get over there. But we'll be hiring people to work there because we wanted to create jobs. We wanted to have the opportunity to create employment."
Pickard said the renovation of the 1920s building has taken a back seat to various paperwork issues so far, as she has worked to get the grocery registered as a historic building, which would enable the couple to take advantage of various tax breaks. They've also been developing connections with the North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative and securing a loan.
But work likely will begin soon, Pickard said. She said plans call for her husband to rebuild the roof himself, while contractors will be brought in to do the rest.
Pickard said the building, which is a little less than 2,000 square feet, was actually a grocery store in its original incarnation before being converted to a pottery studio and later an auto-repair shop. Now, she said, it will be restored to its original purpose, though that will require a great deal of work.
"It's everything--the roof, the plumbing. The cool thing is, we can do it in a sustainable fashion," she said, adding that among the green features the couple has planned is the addition of a geothermal water heater. "It's an important thing to us."
So is addressing the problem of food deserts, which are regarded as areas in which residents have no access to a nearby grocery store. A significant first step in tackling the problem in north Tulsa seems to be on the horizon with the recent announcement that the Gateway Market would be open by the middle of January at the old Albertsons location at Pine Street and Peoria Avenue.
But community leaders who are working on the issue--including state Rep. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, who is helping conduct an interim legislative study on the best ways to offer incentives to healthy corner grocery stores and encourage them to move into underserved areas--have indicated there will still be many neighborhoods in north Tulsa that need their own corner market.
Scott said recently that there are five such markets poised to open in the area throughout the next year. The Latimer Store might be the first of those.
"We're going to offer healthy food, lots of organic food and lots of local stuff," Pickard said. "We're going to stay away from unhealthy food. If a (convenience store) carries it, we won't. In fact, there's one at Pine and Cincinnati near here. If people want junk food, they can go there."
Pickard said the building has two storefronts, and they will be leasing space to a neighbor who wants to open a coffeehouse on one side.
"She's ready to go," she said.
Pickard said she and her husband also are working with NTEDI to establish a distribution warehouse available to small, independent markets, so the owners can band together and place their orders from wholesalers in bulk, passing the savings along to customers. That will help make fresh, wholesome food affordable to all, she believes.
"We can't afford to shop at Whole Foods, and we don't want that to be an obstacle to others," she said.
The Pickards already have three children and are expecting another soon, but that isn't deterring them from launching a project they hope will bring tremendous benefits to their neighborhood.
"It's a cool thing that they get to witness that, and we get to train them to be responsible for their community," she said. "We already have several kids from the neighborhood who come over to our house every day. We want this to be a community draw and having a place where kids can play will be a big part of that."
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