Considering the City: Desperately Seeking Supermarket
The imminent closing of Shur-fine on West Eighth Street will result in a food desert.
By definition, a food desert is a neighborhood without a grocery store within one mile. When Bradley's Shur-fine on West Eighth Street closes in a few weeks, downtown Erie will meet this criteria.
Residents without the means (or ability) to own and drive a car will have to find a ride for the four to twelve miles round-trip to the nearest grocery store: Erie County Farms (2256 Broad St.); Wegmans (6143 Peach St.); Yorktown's Giant Eagle (2501 W. 12 St.); Whole Foods Cooperative (1341 W. 26 St.), or a Tops Market (1520 W. 26 St., 712 W. 38 St. or 1702 E. 38 St.)
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 27,932 people live in downtown Erie: The northern boundary is Presque Isle Bay; the southern boundary is the CSX railroad tracks; The Bayfront Connector marks the eastern boundary; and Interstate-79 and the Bayfront Highway define the western boundary.
Transit advocate Julie Minich of All Aboard Erie reports that the best bus routes run during weekdays and that routes are "more limited" in the evening and on weekends – which is when most people shop for groceries. Minich warns that, without bus shelters, it can be "miserable" during rainy and snowy weather and that "groceries … get soaked."
Sue Moyer, who lives and works in the downtown, notes that a "full-service neighborhood grocery store is important to the health of residents," especially those with a limited income, and she notes that "[the city of] Erie has a 29.2 percent poverty rate." Moyer says that elderly and disabled shoppers have great difficulty "carrying multiple bags" for several blocks over uneven and un-shoveled sidewalks.
While Farmers Markets are available in downtown Erie, they are seasonal and lack fresh meat, fresh fish, and baked goods. Instead of making a trek to a distant supermarket, many residents will shop at a mini-mart, a gas station, or a dollar store. Unfortunately, the highly processed products filling those stores contribute to health problems. The Center for Disease Control reports that "food deserts … lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk..." and the American Nutrition Association notes that the fast food and "quickie marts" offer primarily processed, sugar-heavy, and fat-laden foods that foster obesity.
West Eighth Street is already in decline. When Bradley's Shur-fine closes, the vacant corner at Walnut and West Eighth streets won't help our beloved Pie in the Sky restaurant or Meuller's Key Shop.
Erie County Councilman Andre Horton says the closing of Shur-Fine is "heartbreaking." But is there a silver lining? More than 20,000 downtown residents are not living in poverty. Moyer notes that a market study done by the Downtown Partnership "showed that some individual and family household incomes" are significant but are "spent outside city, because there are no places to spend downtown." But not enough people who have options actually shopped at Bradley's Shur-Fine, leaving us with two important questions: Why? and What can be done?
A few years back, it was clear someone was actually investing in Bradley's by cleaning it up inside, expanding the produce offerings, and cooking great meals, with their oxtail soup filling the store with a savory appeal. But there were problems. Theft was an issue, and a "wall of shame" featured photos from surveillance cameras – encouraging some shoppers to take their business elsewhere. Perhaps because of the losses, Bradley's prices are higher than big-box stores. Would law enforcement be willing to prioritize attention at a future grocery store – or – could the community subsidize the costs of hiring a security guard?
Moyer explained that the PA Fresh Food Financing Initiative supported the costs of "employee training and security and loss prevention systems," the purchase of energy-efficient coolers and freezers, and in the art of arranging produce in "attractive displays…in the front of the store." But, State Rep. Pat Harkins reports that Gov. Tom Corbett cut funding to this program; perhaps Governor-elect Tom Wolf will restore this initiative.
Though Bradley's Shur-fine's location is passed by hundreds of commuters rushing into work each morning, commuters don't pass the store on their way home from work because West Eighth is a one-way street.
Why not rethink this one-way status? Seattle Urban Designer Dave Sucher encourages making all commercial streets two-way streets because "drivers tend to slow down when facing opposing lanes of traffic" – which helps local businesses. A two-way West Eighth Street might make Bradley's more attractive to an investor.
Any schoolchild knows that food, shelter, and water are necessary for survival. Lake Erie is full of water. A variety of market-rate and affordable shelter (housing) can be found downtown. But, contrary to the views of some of our leaders, dollar stores are not a sufficient source of food. To promote good health, and to revitalize our city, we need a supermarket downtown.
Our community and elected leaders must work with the city's economic development staff to respond to this emergency. How about coaxing the Whole Foods Co-op on West 26 Street to open a location at Bradley's Shur-fine? Why not use the power of Gannon's small business students and Mercyhurst's interior design students to work with the International Institute and create a World Grocery Store? The "Our West Bayfront" organization would probably be willing to support this kind of project.
Are you the innovative entrepreneur who is willing to invest in a downtown supermarket, make some money and accept the appreciation of a city? Cultivating a grocery store in Erie's food desert is your – and our – challenge.
Civitas members can be reached at their website www.civitaserie.com, via Facebook at CivitasErie, by emailing Lisa@civitaserie.com, or by scheduling a Friday morning meeting at the Civitas office in the Masonic Building, 32 W. Eighth St.