Less than a month ago Abram Herman could still jump on his motorized skateboard and roll seven blocks in a few minutes to the downtown City Market to grab a few items to bring home. But since the store closed Jan. 17, shopping hasn't been as convenient for him.

Herman now will sometimes drive to Sprouts in the Rimrock Marketplace, passing by the boarded-up City Market at 200 Rood Ave. Other times, he will drive to Grand Junction's newest City Market at the corner of 12th Street and Patterson Road, although he finds it much less convenient to get back to his home near Eighth Street and White Avenue because of the traffic flow.

"Now, I avoid going because it's a pain going over there," Herman said.

The closure of the supermarket that anchored the west end of downtown for nearly 30 years has deprived the most densely populated area of Grand Junction — a neighborhood that includes many elderly and low-income residents with limited transportation options — of a neighborhood grocery store. It has left the city with a large, vacant lot at the entrance to a vibrant, growing downtown shopping and dining district. And at the same time municipal and business leaders push to create more housing downtown, it's removed an attractive amenity for those would-be residents.

For Colin St. Clair, who serves as the point of contact for the newly formed Emerson Park Neighborhood Association, the downtown City Market was his go-to store. Now he mostly shops at the 12th and Patterson City Market, roughly two miles from his home. The distance is negligible, but he feels the closure negates the effort to make downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods more welcoming for residents.

"We see it as a huge bummer. One thing we're hoping to do is make the neighborhood more friendly and livable for everyone. Not having a grocery hurts that. It's a huge piece of the puzzle missing," St. Clair said. "Hopefully somebody else will come in, even if it is a specialty store."

City Market announced the store's closure in early December, citing declining profits at the downtown location. The store was slated to close Jan. 18, but closed a day early because of a shortage of stock, and the building was quickly boarded up. The City Market sign has been removed, leaving just the outline of the lettering.

Grand Junction's Downtown Development Authority, which is tasked with improving infrastructure and preventing blight in the downtown corridor, is looking for ways to keep that space from remaining vacant for the foreseeable future.

Director Brandon Stam said many businesses are also sad to see the store go.

"I think everyone is concerned about not having a grocery store downtown. It was definitely utilized and is missed," Stam said. "It's too bad because a lot of things are good. There is more interest in developing downtown. This has put a damper on it, but I don't think it will slow interest in other stuff."

One business about to open is Downtown Assisted Living, which converted an old motel into apartments for seniors. Administrator Marlene Curry said living in the downtown area was the main draw for residents, who have already signed leases, and the City Market across the street was certainly a plus.

"Downtown was the focus, but it was definitely an extra perk as far as having access to products so quickly," Curry said. "It's just more of a bummer than anything."

SEEKING A NEW TENANT

The nine-person DDA board of directors has discussed the City Market closure in great detail since the announcement. The board would like to have some sort of say in the possible future tenants at the property.

City Market, which is owned by Cincinnati-based grocery chain Kroger, has two years remaining on its lease, but had previously said it would be open to subletting the building to an organization such as a nonprofit. The DDA has inquired about attempting to take over the remainder of the lease, but Stam said he was not allowed to see the details of the agreement between City Market and the property owner, Eleanor Sade Trust.

Stam is skeptical that there is a nonprofit in town that could adequately fill the 60,000-square-foot space or if that is the right fit for the property.

"There's not a whole lot of nonprofits I can think of that could use that space," he said. "And we want someone who would activate that space."

City Market spokesman Adam Williamson said there has been interest in subleasing the property, but could not divulge any specific information.

The goal at the DDA and City Hall is to ensure that the space doesn't sit vacant for multiple years like two supermarkets in Grand Junction. Safeway at 2148 Broadway in the Redlands closed in 2015 and Albertsons at 1830 N. 12th St. closed in 2017, and both are still empty.

Both Stam and Grand Junction City Manager Greg Caton acknowledge that the old City Market is unlikely to draw interest from another grocer in the immediate future. It's also unlikely City Market would sublease to a competitor while it still is leasing the property.

"I think people need to set a level of expectation," Caton said. "I don't think this will have a new life very soon. We don't have to look too far to see those other examples of what happens."

Caton is also optimistic that the good health of downtown will lend itself well to filling the space and possibly attracting a smaller grocery store to meet the needs of downtown residents and businesses who spend the majority of their day in the corridor.

"We have a very vibrant downtown and very vibrant community," he said. "I think that will serve this and other spaces well."

He also does not believe the closure will have much impact on area revenue as grocery stores in surrounding areas will pick up that business. He hopes the private sector will present a solution and bring a new, likely smaller grocer to downtown if the market dictates.

In addition to discussions at board meetings, the topic has been a big one throughout the downtown corridor, Stam said.

At community meetings led by the DDA to discuss the organization's plan of development that it is formulating, the closed City Market has been at the forefront of discussions.

Herman said the topic came up at a DDA meeting with the Emerson Park Neighborhood Association, which covers an area from about Eighth Street to 19th Street between Grand and Pitkin avenues, just east of the downtown commercial district. Many were lamenting the closure, he said.

Herman is hopeful a new grocer comes into downtown, even if it is a higher-priced, independent group in a smaller space.

"I would be willing to pay more if it meant I could walk over and have easy access," he said.

That could be a possibility, according to Thom Blischok, chairman and CEO of the Dialogic Group, a strategic adviser to retail and consumer package manufacturers.

Blischok said as grocers change focus and embrace digital ordering, pickup and delivery, consumers will see a change in operations and a 20,000- or 30,000-square-foot store might be a better fit for downtown instead of one that's two or three times that size.

"We're seeing the emergence of smaller stores for downtown," he said. "There may be opportunities for several smaller grocers."

5 REMAINING STORES

Despite the downtown store closure, City Market still has five stores in Grand Junction and Fruita, including two that have opened since 2010.

The Rood Avenue store opened in 1990 and had been a popular location for downtown residents and employees. But the store had scaled back some of its offerings in recent years, such as eliminating its seating area near the deli, gourmet cheese display and olive bar.

The new stores at 12th and Patterson and on 24 Road near Mesa Mall — stores in or closer to more affluent neighborhoods away from the center of the city — seemed to receive heavy investment, Stam said, while the downtown store began to degrade.

"It's not like they were investing a lot of money. It was not as nice as their other stores. It certainly could have been better," Stam said. "It seemed like they quit trying after a while."

While City Market simply cited falling profits as the reason for the store's closure, others have openly wondered if downtown's homeless population actively contributed to the decision. The downtown City Market was one of the few stores — if not the only one — to employ a full-time security guard. Records from the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center show the store generated the most calls for service of any City Market over the past year. The Rood Avenue location had slightly more calls than the Clifton store.

Grand Valley Catholic Outreach Director of Development and Communication Beverly Lampley said she is concerned with the amount of blame for the closure assigned to the homeless population.

"They feel like it was directed at them because they used (the store)," Lampley said.

Catholic Outreach is based downtown and feeds 250 to 300 homeless people per day. It also houses qualifying residents through its St. Benedict's Place and St. Martin's Place housing developments, which have 63 apartments between three locations. Lampley said those residents relied on City Market for fresh food, and many cannot drive to other locations.

Lampley believes there is a stigma that the homeless who hung out in front of the store contributed greatly to the store's closure. But she said the majority of homeless who used the store did so quietly and were friendly with staff. She also called the decision to close "short-sighted" on Kroger's part.

"They try to eat healthy and do the right thing and this happens," she said. "They feel incredibly wronged."

Lampley also said City Market has been a great community partner and has donated a lot of food to Catholic Outreach's soup kitchen.

Among shoppers at the store, the homeless presence was certainly felt. Herman, however, said he never felt threatened.

St. Clair said he understands that some locals may have decided to shop elsewhere because of the homeless, but still felt the store was busy.

"I can see how it was a deterrent, but (closing the store) doesn't solve the problem," he said.

Lampley said the homeless have had a hard time adjusting and haven't been able to access healthy food as easily. Catholic Outreach is considering having a weekly shuttle take people to grocery stores around the community to pick up goods.

"It's so new to them, they are just now grappling with it. But it's a huge problem," Lampley said. "Now we're all kind of in this desert."

DOWNTOWN FOOD DESERT?

The two closest grocery stores to the shuttered downtown City Market are the Walmart Supercenter in Rimrock and Safeway at 2512 Broadway, which are 1.2 and 1.3 miles away, respectively. But each store has considerable physical barriers for anyone looking to walk or bike from downtown.

Lucinda Cross, who lives near 11th Street and Rood Avenue and is not able to drive, will take the bus to the 12th and Patterson City Market, even though it's a little farther, because there is a bus near her house that stops there.

"I don't like it. Now the nearest one is far away," she said. "It's not as convenient to get groceries."

But whether this store closure classifies the downtown area as a "food desert," an area with limited access to affordable and nutritious food, is a complex issue.

There is not one definitive indicator that classifies an area as a food desert, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has called it an urban area where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the Census tract's population resides more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocer. In rural areas, the distance is up to 10 miles.

One of the pitfalls of living in a food desert is the lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, which often results in a higher rate of adult obesity.

"If you live near a grocery store, you're more likely to consume more vegetables and eat healthier. Similarly, a food desert is linked to poor diet and risk of obesity," said Sara Schmitt, managing director of research, evaluation and consulting for the Colorado Health Institute.

But how downtown Grand Junction fits into this is murky, one expert says.

"It sounds to me like it's on the bubble," said Brian Lang, director of the national campaign for healthy food access at the Food Trust, noting a greater need to dive into the downtown area's demographics.

The Food Trust is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit with a mission to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food.

Karen Harkin, community relationship manager on the Western Slope for the Colorado Housing and Financing Authority, has her office in downtown Grand Junction and said the store's closure is a loss for the community.

"Personally, it made me sad. I used to see a lot of seniors walking with groceries and people at bus stops," she said. "What will happen to them?"

She noted that there are about 800 households in the downtown area and 11 percent of those residents don't drive.

Although the loss of City Market will be felt in the area, a program through Harkin's organization could help bring a new grocer to town.

CHFA has a Fresh Food Financing Fund that provides low-interest loans to groups looking to bring healthy food into areas where it is not accessible. Harkin said the area around the City Market would likely be eligible for these loans.

"It will be a loss, but we're optimistic someone will step up and help fill that need," she said.

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