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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

Long-empty corner could finally provide an oasis in 'food desert'

Tom Niezer
Tom Niezer
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Friday, March 10, 2017 09:01 pm
It's one of the busiest intersections in the city's Renaissance Pointe renewal area, a next-door neighbor to the former Coca-Cola bottling plant slated to be the centerpiece of a $13.5 million project that will being 30 apartments and 31 more single-family homes to the southeast-side neighborhood. Yet the northwest corner of South Anthony Boulevard and Pontiac Street — target of numerous redevelopment proposals over the years — remains barren. But that could soon change, in the process expanding food options for people living in what officials regard as a "food desert."

Virk Brothers LLC, which operates several convenience store/gas stations in Fort Wayne, has asked the city Plan Commission for approval to erect gas pumps and a retail building of up to 10,000 square feet on the lot now marked by a "no trespassing" sign. But this is not going to be just another strip mall and convenience store, insists Virk attorney Tom Niezer. This project will be anchored by a 4,000-square-foot "mini-market" that will offer a full range of grocery items, including refrigerated goods, dairy, fresh meats, fruits and vegetables and the usual assortment of dry and prepackaged foods.

In some other parts of town, that would seem unremarkable. But despite all of the money invested in the Renaissance Pointe area in recent years by the city, churches, social-service agencies, private developers and others, the area lacks a full-service grocery. As Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan noted a few years ago, more than 23.5 million Americans — including residents of parts of eight ZIP codes in Fort Wayne — live in "food deserts" more than a mile from the nearest supermarket.

"(The area) didn't want to see another convenience store, so we increased the size of the grocery," said Niezer, who added that the developers will compile a list of food products to be offered prior to the Plan Commission's public hearing in April.

As for the commercial space, Virk's application makes it clear certain types of businesses will not be accepted, including liquor and discount tobacco stores, massage or tattoo parlors and adult-oriented or pawn shops.

As I noted earlier, the lack of development at that corner should not be mistaken for a lack of interest. Way back in 2001, for example, a Michigan developer proposed a $5 million, 40,000-square-foot shopping center on the corner and adjacent lots, but the owner of business there at the time, Phil's Market, reportedly wanted $900,000 and the deal fell through.

But not long after Phil Holmes died two years later CORE Consulting Group LLC said it planned a 20,000-square-foot retail center on the site. The city even earmarked $55,000 in income tax funds for the project but it fell through.

The vacant Phil's Market and adjacent buildings were torn down in 2006, causing city Redevelopment Specialist Julie Sanchez to suggest the ready-for-development site "represents a lot of change, a lot of hope for a better day." But even though developer Chris Payne in 2010 received approval for a project similar to Virk's it, too, failed to materialize.

Those disappointments, coupled with growing expectations in a part of town that has long been considered blighted, may begin to explain why Niezer sounded almost apologetic in a letter to the Plan Commission, acknowledging that "Virk understands the expectations and anticipation that have been building on the real estate . . . Virk also understands the commitment any development must bring to the surrounding neighborhood and looks forward to building that relationship."

But there is no need for apology. Just as some have suggested the Rescue Mission's Washington Boulevard site of its new shelter could be better use, some no doubt will wish for something larger or better on the old Phil's site. But just as the Mission should not be second-guessed because others could have developed its site but chose not to, neither should Virk be questioned should it produce improvements that have eluded others. The project would be an improvement, bringing new options to an area served by a small store across the street that offers few fresh items and a larger store in the nearby Pontiac Mall that does. The "urban farm" that opened in old Fire Station No. 9 on Winter Street recently has also helped expand nutritional options in the area.

"The city would like to see the highest and best use of the property . . . We’re encouraged that the developer is considering an expanded mini-mart that will offer fresh, healthy food options for residents. We will continue to watch this as it goes through the planning process," said Community Development Director Greg Leatherman.

Whether the area remains a food desert remains to be seen, but there are at least a few small oases beginning to develop.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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