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Hopes are high for Second Ave. cooperative grocery store | The Homepage

By Juliet Martinez

The team working on developing a grocery store on the 4800 block of Second Avenue in Hazelwood has expanded to include around a dozen partners dedicated to addressing food and economic justice issues. They gathered on the stage at Propel Hazelwood on Oct. 3 to discuss the need and demand for the project.

People sit in an auditorium with blue chairs. A dark-skinned woman with gray hair and a turquois blouse holds a microphone.
Audience members asked project team members about the the Sarah Dixon Innovation Center cooperative grocery store at an Oct. 3 community meeting at Propel School in Hazelwood. Photo by Juliet Martinez

Saundra Cole-McKamey, a Hazelwood community advocate, has spearheaded the effort as the founder of People of Origin Rightfully Loved and Wanted, known by its acronym, POORLAW. Her longtime collaborator, Pastor Lutual Love, co-founder and vice president of the Greater Hazelwood Coalition Against Racial and Ethnic Disparities, POORLAW’s advocacy arm, stressed the significance of cooperative ownership.

“If the community doesn't step up and take ownership of the process or ownership of the actual stores, then sometimes private developers – whether public or private – will abandon the project if it isn't profitable enough,” he said.

“This is about more than just a grocery store,” said Kevin McPhillips, executive director and CEO of the Pennsylvania Center for Employee Ownership. “It's about creating jobs, securing financial futures for workers and, most importantly, building a supportive community within Hazelwood.”

Much of the team is focused on the neighborhood's economic development. Project manager Joe Massaro serves as the chief strategy officer for BEAM Collective, an organization dedicated to strategically sourcing Black-owned businesses and creating supply chains and employment opportunities for the Black community. D. Well Associates and its nonprofit arm, Infinite Prosperity, aim to build wealth in underserved communities through community ownership of critical financial assets, according to the organization's president, Bill Bailey. Khalid Morris, the executive director of Denver-based Family Tree Market, discussed job and career training, profit-sharing opportunities, and support for neighborhood-based food entrepreneurs as integral components of community economic development for this project.

The project’s design comes from StoreMasters architect and space planner Scott Gerke, who expressed the company's commitment to creating a grocery store that meets Hazelwood's needs and desires.

On top – literally – of the design and architecture support is a third-floor aquaponic farm. Juan Lacey, CEO and founder of Delaware-based Farms Close By, described his company’s system as capable of producing 300,000 heads of lettuce and over 18,000 pounds of fish annually through a system where fish and produce are grown together. The fish make fertilizer for the plants and the plants clean the water.

Giant Eagle, with a more established approach, offered help with market insights, store layouts, equipment purchases, wholesale buying and choosing products to stock, according to Melinda Gaus, senior administrator for community relations and development.

But nothing happens without funding. Up to $3 million of the $23 million needed for this project is expected to come from the New Market Tax Credit subsidy, as explained by Pete Byford, senior vice president of Advantage Capital. This program represents a public-private partnership where Community Development Entities collaborate with the Department of the Treasury to identify projects in historically neglected lower-income communities. The Treasury then issues federal tax credits to investors like PNC Bank.

To buy the land for the development, the team will need to secure these tax credits and all the other necessary funding. Hazelwood Initiative executive director Sonya Tilghman said the community development corporation owns 4838 Second Ave. and has agreed to sell it to POORLAW for this project. The group is also an advisor and neighbor to the project.

Krish Pandya, managing partner at Oak Moss Consulting, also advises on the project. His firm produced the feasibility study for the Sarah Dixon Innovation Center, which was released in April, 2022.

“We crunched all the numbers,” he said. “If 75% of the residents buy their groceries from the store, yes, this will start becoming sustainable,” Mr. Pandya told the meeting.

However, capturing this much of the grocery market may still be challenging.

“Walmart and Giant Eagle combined only capture 46% of Pittsburgh's grocery market,” said Dawn Marie Clepper, Director of Community Food Access at Just Harvest, a local food advocacy group.

Mr. Pandya countered that the neighborhood's population growth will favor the store’s success. Around 3,500 residential housing units are planned for Hazelwood Green, according to its land development plan, though no residential developments have broken ground yet.

Some residents at the meeting wanted to ensure that the cooperative grocery store would not displace Dylamato's Market at 5414 Second Ave., the neighborhood's only grocery store offering produce, dairy products, locally-sourced meat, baked goods, honey and products made by neighborhood artisans. Pastor Love said they have spoken with owner Dianne Shenk, who supports the project.

Ms. Cole-McKamey said the project's purpose is not to compete with existing businesses.

“This is what I want y’all to understand. We're not here to compete with nobody,” she said. “We’re here to unify. OK, so Dianne, she ain’t going to lose. This is a win-win situation.”

Juliet Martinez is the managing editor of The Homepage.

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