Residents of one of Baltimore's many "food deserts" will gain more access to fresh meats and produce when what officials say is the city's largest grocery store opens Thursday in Howard Park.
The 67,000-square-foot ShopRite store reflects a push to bring healthier food options to neighborhoods that have long been without a full-service food market.
"When you have an environment that is lacking in fresh food options, it will be harder for you to be healthy," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. She says there is a "need, not a want, for fresh produce" in the area.
The Howard Park ShopRite will package suburban offerings for an urban audience, said Marshall Klein, chief operating officer of Klein's Family Markets, which owns and operates nine ShopRite locations in the Baltimore region, primarily in Harford County. The Howard Park location is Klein's first foray into Baltimore, and it's a joint venture with the nonprofit UpLift Solutions.
Brenda McKenzie, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., called the new ShopRite an "important signal that there is money to be made" in Howard Park and the surrounding area.
"This truly is an anchor, so we're working with the community to see what project can be next so we can really build on the success of this and really activate new commercial activity moving forward," she said. "We are looking to see where we can replicate this success in other neighborhoods."
But the Howard Park store also demonstrates the challenges the city faces in attracting more supermarkets.
Plans for a grocery store in Howard Park date to 1999, when the Super Pride on Liberty Heights Avenue closed, leaving the area without a supermarket.
Rawlings-Blake said she has pushed for a grocery store in Howard Park since 2004. The city purchased the site at 4601 Liberty Heights Ave. from Rite Aid in 2009 but still had to persuade the drugstore chain to waive a restriction preventing a pharmacy from being built there.
Tax credits played a major role in ShopRite's move to Howard Park. The breaks helped fund the estimated $20 million cost of building and stocking the store.
The Reinvestment Fund, a national backer of low-income neighborhood projects, together with City First Bank and JP Morgan Chase contributed $14.65 million in capital through the federal New Markets Tax Credit program, which is designed to attract investors to low-income communities. A 2011 market study by The Reinvestment Fund found $60.9 million of grocery sales demand leaking from Howard Park each year, with no grocer to take the neighborhood's money.
Don Hinkle-Brown, the fund's president and CEO, said the ShopRite represents a shift in focus that large national chains haven't pursued, embracing the challenges of a city and not settling for the "easy money" of the more affluent suburbs.
Glord McGuire, vice president of the Howard Park Activity and Community Association, is one of many neighborhood advocates who met with the Kleins and city representatives over the last five years to help plan the ShopRite.
He said the company recognized the need to adapt to a community that doesn't have much disposable income.
"They changed the concept, the strategy, because they know it's a necessity," said McGuire, who has lived in Howard Park since 1968. "People need to eat. They're going to need food at a good price."
Klein said many products and services are tailored to the store, born from those years of discussions with the Howard Park community.
Flame-grilled chicken will be sold as a healthier alternative to the plentiful fast-food joints in the neighborhood. The store also will stock Halal-certified meats to cater to local Muslims.
A health clinic set to open inside the store in October, managed by Park West Health Care systems, will provide walk-in care, along with a pharmacy to fill prescriptions. It's what makes the ShopRite "more than a grocery store," said Klein, pointing out that the lack of medical clinics in the neighborhood forces those with routine ailments to travel farther to urgent care facilities.
Jeremy Diamond, director of Diamond Marketing Group and a grocery industry consultant, said ShopRite has learned from the missteps of former inner-city competitors such as Stop Shop and Save, which is closing its last store after more than 30 years in the Baltimore grocery business.
"The old way to run inner-city stores was in small stores with dingy lighting," Diamond said. "Customers have shown that enough is enough. Customers can go to the suburbs and have this nice experience."
The focus on fresh produce is a win-win for ShopRite, despite the section probably being the supermarket's least profitable, he said.
"It's what's lacking in the city," Diamond said of fresh produce. "And if that's what it takes to bring in the customers, then that's a great draw, and it's a healthy draw, and at the same time, it's showing the customers that ShopRite cares about their health."
Klein said the family-owned business has its work cut out in changing a Howard Park diet that for years has relied on limited offerings — leaning heavily on junk food and ready-to-eat-meals — in the absence of a neighborhood grocery store.
"There's a perception that urban supermarkets don't sell a lot of produce," Klein said. "That's not really true. I believe people who run urban stores don't merchandise effectively. People buy with their eyes. They want to eat what looks fresh, not what looks terrible."