Solving the Downtown Grocery Challenge

One major challenge facing cities hoping to bring residents back to their downtowns is the lack of a grocery store. One Syracuse developer, and former Walt Disney executive, just opened an upscale urban grocery. He thinks that he has the solution for making money in an unproven market. Matt Hackworth of member station WAER reports.

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And unless you can survive on the candy and nuts found at newsstands, living downtown has been a challenge in some American cities. A downtown grocery store can be as scarce as developers willing to risk opening one.

In the small city of Syracuse, New York, one developer has decided it is the right time to open a full-service grocery, right in the middle of town. Matt Hackworth of member station WAER reports.

Mr. MATT HACKWORTH (Reporter, WAER): Developers Mark Congel and Dan Queri think they can recoup their $4.5 million investment, not just by opening an average grocery store downtown, they'll tout a higher level of service, a service Queri says could have been provided by the mythical 18th century grocer C.L. Evers, for whom the new store is named.

Mr. DAN QUERI (Real Estate Developer): The storyline really speaks of a proprietor who came over to the United States and landed in central New York with dreams and visions of being a local grocer.

HACKWORTH: A silhouette of the bearded grocery keeper stands watch over the computerized check-out aisles in this new urban grocery. The developers hope the logo will become an icon of convenience, synonymous with pre-planned menus, call-ahead shopping and an on-duty chef to answer questions.

Standing in front of a bin of fresh onions, developer Dan Queri acknowledges he's borrowing a page from his former employer, the Disney Company. Queri says Disney is masterful at linking a certain level of service to an icon.

Mr. QUERI: Storytelling is critical. And in order to build a concept around a story; and establish your story, and then incorporate all the brilliance of store planning, and fixture development; and all the technical components that run parallel with the creative--it delivers you a much larger, much broader, and far more significant concept.

HACKWORTH: The developers want to tout the convenience of a central grocery store, keeping prices in check for downtown workers who might need the occasional gallon of milk on the way home to the suburbs. But they're most eager to recruit regular customers who can afford upscale housing going in downtown Syracuse. The lack of any downtown population has largely kept investors away from the urban grocery concept.

Mr. MATT DRISCOLL (Mayor, Syracuse, New York): It's been an ongoing struggle for some time.

HACKWORTH: Syracuse mayor Matt Driscoll says, for decades developers weren't keen to investing in a downtown grocery. At the same time, would-be urban dwellers didn't move downtown because there weren't basic services, such as a grocery store. But Driscoll says both elements of the housing and service equation are changing at the same time.

Mr. DRISCOLL: The data shows that not only here, but nationally, that people are moving back to urban areas into downtown cities. We, here in Syracuse, view our downtown as a neighborhood.

(Soundbite of construction)

HACKWORTH: Workers heft armfuls of large metal ductwork like so many straws, in the middle of what's to become a wine shop adjacent to the new grocery store. A full-service bank is also planned for the downtown project. Syracuse University professor of entrepreneurial practice, Eric Alderman, says at one time, no developer would invest in projects like these new stores unless people were already living nearby.

Mr. ERIC ALDERMAN (Assistant Professor, School of Management, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York): It would be seen by most business people that it would be much too risky to build a grocery store and then hope people would come. You need a critical mass of people before you can build that kind of specialty store and expect that it will survive.

HACKWORTH: Alderman says that's changing as more upscale housing becomes available in downtown areas. Newly remodeled apartments will soon open just upstairs from Syracuse's new grocery store and there's already a waiting list of people who want to make a new home downtown. For NPR News, I'm Matt Hackworth in Syracuse, New York.

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