Slow food

After a decade of trying, and $2 million in subsidies, why can’t north Sacramento get a grocery store?

Cheers went up last week for the grand opening of a new Fresh and Easy grocery store in Oak Park. It was a good development for the neighborhood, which is underserved by grocery stores and could use the boost in economic development.

It was also good press for the Fresh and Easy chain, and for its British parent corporation, Tesco PLC—which has announced plans to open another half-dozen of the smaller format, lower priced stores around the area—including stores in south Sacramento, Folsom and Elk Grove.

One neighborhood that’s not on Fresh and Easy’s short list though, is the neighborhood of north Sacramento, which is even more desperate for a decent grocery store.

The company is skipping north Sacramento for now, despite the fact that—unlike those other locations around town—the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency has given the company $2 million to build a store there.

For several years, neighborhood residents have passed by the mostly empty lot, on El Camino Avenue and Evergreen Street near Del Paso Boulevard, and wondered about the nice new parking lot that is going unused because there is no building there, and the big sign on the lot that bears the name of the developer, Petrovich Development. It says that Fresh and Easy is “coming soon.”

“I assumed we were going to be on that list,” said city Councilwoman Sandy Sheedy, “but we weren’t.” A grocery store in the area “has been my top priority since I came into office,” she said. Sheedy was elected to the council in 2000.

For a city that’s contemplating building a new basketball arena that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, you might think getting one little neighborhood grocery store built would be no big deal. But for north Sacramento, it’s been a decade of frustration.

In 2003, the SHRA was close to a deal with developer Lux Taylor to build a Raley’s across the street from the Evergreen site. The redevelopment agency would have to put some public money in to make it pencil out for the company.

But another developer, Paul Petrovich, managed to scuttle that deal, by promising he could deliver a better project, with no public money. In 2004, he told The Sacramento Bee, “I don’t need a subsidy. Not a dollar.”

Unfortunately, that deal fell through when the grocery chain Petrovich was trying to lure to the neighborhood pulled out. In 2008, Petrovich got interest from Fresh and Easy. But it was a different kind of store and a very different economy. This time, a subsidy would be involved, in the form of a $1.975 million loan for new everything—sewer, power, the works.

Petrovich (who declined to be interviewed for this story) took the loan, and had the parking lot and other infrastructure put in. Then sold the property—along with responsibility for the loan—to Fresh and Easy. The neighborhood waited, and waited, and waited for construction to start.

Sheedy said she’s in regular contact with Fresh and Easy, and expects them to follow through. “The commitment was made for a grocery store. And they are still on the hook for that,” she told SN&R.

According to the agreement, the SHRA’s loan will be forgiven if Fresh and Easy actually builds the store.

But the loan terms don’t put much pressure on the company to make the north Sacramento location a priority. According to SHRA assistant director of community development Chris Pahule, Fresh and Easy only has to pay the loan back if it walks away from the project and sells the property.

Not far from the proposed Fresh and Easy site is the Roberts Family Development Center—a nonprofit run by Tina Roberts and her husband Derrell.

Tina says the lack of a grocery store is a continued drag on her community.

“If you want a neighborhood to thrive, you have to have things in the neighborhood that support that. You have to have access to good food,” Roberts said.

Nowadays, Roberts drives all the way to Watt Avenue and Arden Way or to the Trader Joe’s off of Marconi Avenue for any grocery shopping.

She wonders why Fresh and Easy is putting a higher priority on other neighborhoods, when the city already put in a big chunk of money to help with the north Sacramento store. “What does it take?” Roberts asked.

Brendan Wonnacott, a spokesman for Fresh and Easy, couldn’t tell SN&R what it would take. He did say the Fresh and Easy’s “entire rollout was slowed down” by the recession. As for north Sacramento, “We’re certainly looking forward to serving the neighborhood. But we don’t have a timeframe just yet.”