In Cherry Hill, residents wait for promised market

Efforts under way to bring food store to neighborhood

March 30, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The people hanging around the Cherry Hill shopping center weren't ready to celebrate the news that a market was coming to the old Super Pride spot. They've heard such promises for nearly two years and still don't have a full-service grocery.

That could change this summer.

The city's Board of Estimates approved this month a $50,000 grant needed to bring a market back to this neighborhood of 11,000 people south of the Hanover Street Bridge. To date, $750,000 in loans and grants from public and private agencies have been lined up, with $50,000 from the developer, Integrity Foods LLC.

Yet residents are sticking to a "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude.

"They should have had [the market] open. It's unreal," Joyce Waters said. "I bet you, if you get a petition, I could get a lot of people to sign it saying, `We need our market opened up.'"


An inconvenience

The Super Pride store opened in October 1998 and was a centerpiece in the newly renovated Cherry Hill Town Center, which houses about a dozen stores when fully occupied. Less than two years after opening there, Super Pride shut its doors citywide. The closing inconvenienced customers and dealt neighboring merchants a financial blow.

"After the supermarket went out, I lost a lot of business. I could barely pay my rent," said Randy Jung, manager of J.J.'s Discount. "It was tough."

Although some gave the Super Pride low ratings for quality and cleanliness, the grocery was a neighborhood place to shop. Once it went out of business, the elderly and those without cars were forced to depend on the kindness of friends and relatives, the light rail, buses, or the hacks - unlicensed cab drivers who charged $20 for round trips to supermarkets in Glen Burnie.

Catholic Charities owns the center and has tried to find someone to take over the market space. The agency is taking a cautious stance, hoping nothing comes along to derail the deal. Catholic Charities feels some of the same frustrations as the people in Cherry Hill, said Renee Johnson, agency spokeswoman.

"We're hopeful," she said. "There's no indication that anything will fall through."

Kevin J. Malachi, who oversees commercial revitalization in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, said bringing a market into Cherry Hill has been "a very challenging deal." Big name grocers rejected city overtures because the store's size, 16,000 square feet, was too small for their needs. They were more interested in spaces at least twice the size.

And there were concerns the market could not succeed because Cherry Hill is a relatively low-income community.

Such concerns did not take into account the Super Pride's sales history, said Ackneil Muldrow II, president of the Development Credit Fund, which is helping to piece together the deal. Super Pride recorded annual sales of $3.4 million at its Cherry Hill store, according to Muldrow.

"That defies what people say," he said.

Chains shun small spaces

There will be no Giant, Super Fresh, or Metro Food Market in Cherry Hill. Instead, city officials had to turn to small, independent operators. Mid-level chains such as Save-A-Lot have rescued city neighborhoods lately, taking over vacant markets in Bolton Hill and Govans. City officials estimate Baltimore has 40 to 50 supermarkets for its 651,000 residents.

"Our goal is to make sure people have access to services," Malachi said of the effort to bring a market to Cherry Hill. "Everybody is going to benefit from this. The main thing is we want to make sure there is a quality product there."

The Development Credit Fund started looking at applications for the market in August. Two proposals by Integrity Foods were rejected because they would have carried too much debt and lacked needed managerial and financial controls, Muldrow said.

Everyone wanted a market in Cherry Hill, but not if that meant bringing in a business with a heavy debt load that could threaten its survival.

State officials, the Small Business Administration, representatives of Mayor Martin O'Malley's office, Catholic Charities and the Development Credit Fund met throughout the fall and tried to agree on a satisfactory funding package. The negotiations continued into January with no resolution. Proposals were in the range of $800,000. Development Credit wanted something closer to $600,000.

"The owner-operator did not have enough equity," Muldrow said. "We said the city has to step up in order to make this work. They had to do the gap financing."

The city responded with the $50,000 grant approved Wednesday. Integrity Foods, an enterprise headed by local businessmen Al Moore and Jeffe Singh, brought in a wholesale and distribution company to help guide the day-to-day management. Those changes were crucial to moving the plan forward.

"[Moore] has the basic credentials," Muldrow said. "But we felt more comfortable when he had a support mechanism."

As these behind-the-scenes maneuverings proceeded, Cherry Hill folks continued making their long shopping trips out of the neighborhood. Corner markets provided the essentials, but did not sell the fresh meat, poultry and produce available in supermarkets. Residents also had to deal with the sometimes unpredictable hours of the local minimarts.

Michael Robinson, who has lived in Cherry Hill for several years, stood in the shopping center's parking lot last week and said what every government planner and development specialist downtown and in City Hall knows to be true:

"Every community needs a market," he said. "It brings us together. ... We've got everything here but a market."

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