For city, supermarkets mean more than groceries

Anchor: The new Giant in Waverly is part of a bid to stabilize communities around grocery stores.

July 20, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

After a long seven years of lugging loads of groceries across town, Carrie Brennen can't wait for the supermarket across the street to reopen.

"When the Super Fresh closed it was really hard on everybody," Brennen said. "You had to shop once a week and cram your refrigerator with stuff so you don't have to run up to the Rotunda [several miles away] over and over again. No more of that, so you know I am delighted."

The new Giant Food opening Thursday on East 33rd Street represents more than added convenience. For city officials, it's a key ingredient in a policy to strengthen neighborhoods by anchoring them around inner-city supermarkets - the 16th new or expanded grocery store in Baltimore since early 2002, part of an initiative from Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Already, residents in Waverly say their property values have crept up slightly just by being in Giant's construction dust in the past year. A new YMCA is also being built in the area. The city is hoping other neighborhoods will also stabilize around the newer supermarkets.

Another newly built Giant will open next week in the Reisterstown Road Plaza in the city near the county line, and a Mars grocery store will open later this year in Northeast Baltimore - making for 18 new or expanded grocery stores in the city in less than two years.

Inside the 67,000-square-foot, full-service Waverly Giant, patrons will find a pharmacy, bakery, sushi bar, cafe, fresh seafood and produce stands, flower shop and deli. And near the exit doors will be a suggestion box.

"If I can make it happen, boom, the next day their suggestion will be there," said David Ferraro, general manager of the new supermarket. "You have to be ready to react to your customer."

With the tongue of a salesman delivering a feverish pitch, Ferraro is talking up the store's proximity to both affluent and poor neighborhoods, the mix of traditional and ethnic goods on its shelves, and every corner of the building's detail down to the 82 security cameras.

Normally, a quality new store doesn't need such push. But, then again, this is the kind of store that has typically shunned Baltimore for decades. And despite going forth on an $8 million project, there remains a bit of apprehension for Giant over whether the store will make the grade business-wise.

Diverse customers

"We don't know who our customer is going to be yet, and that is very unusual for a new store," Ferraro said.

"If you draw a one-mile radius around this store, you've got million-dollar homes and you've got people on food stamps. I have to find a way to satisfy them all."

Waverly is bordered by 33rd Street to the south, 39th Street to the north, Greenmount Avenue to the west and Ellerslie Avenue to the east. It is near the Johns Hopkins University, Union Memorial Hospital and Herring Run Park.

It's a working-class community with low- and middle-income families and some issues with crime, mainly drug activity, closer to Greenmount Avenue. But some neighboring communities, such as Guilford and Oakenshawe, are among the wealthiest in Baltimore.

Brennen said that before Giant began to build, houses on that side of 33rd Street were dilapidated, open-air drug markets flourished, and rats bred inside the old grocery building.

"Having this new store takes care of that all in one fell swoop," she said. "But we still need a greater police presence around here."

Luring them back

Everything that Ferraro is grappling with on the eve of his store's opening - concerns over crime and whether the store will draw from all the surrounding communities - are issues that drove grocery operators from the city a decade ago and led to the current dating process between city and business leaders to lure them back.

"We found that grocery store operators were always willing to talk as long as they are within a stone's throw of the county. So we're constantly trying to coax them back into the city," O'Malley said.

"The rap on Baltimore, because of the violent crime and drug addiction at our center, was that Baltimore is a good area but stay out of the city," said O'Malley, who has attended an annual grocers trade show in Las Vegas the past several years to combat that image of the city and portray Baltimore as a place with promising economic viability.

The mayor says the city's declining violent crime and rising property values in recent years have some retailers willing to explore deals inside city limits. For example, the Save-A-Lot chain has 12 stores in the area, including six new or renovated groceries opened inside the city in the past two years.

The other factor that has helped is deals struck between grocery operators and the Baltimore Development Corp. - the city's business development arm, which has worked to increase the number of inner-city stores.

For the Waverly Giant project, the city provided land, $550,000 for other property acquisition and $700,000 in road improvements. Other stores have been given low-interest loans for renovations.

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