For three years Walter Dixie has been leading the charge to bring a supermarket to the Southside. At a springtime field trip on that quest, SouthWest Community Center director Jesse Dowdell reflected that the issue had been on the priority list when that facility opened over 30 years ago. The field trip carried a bus load of concerned citizens to Vestal, outside Binghamton, to tour a newly opened Price Rite, part of a 48 store chain which intends to open another at the corner of Erie Boulevard East and Teall Avenue in October.
Store president Neil Duffy told the more than 40 visitors that his company was conducting research on the feasibility of a site on South Avenue, but considered Syracuse to be a two or three store market. His main pitch was, “We know we’re always cheaper than everybody else.” Actually, the prices on his shelves were so low that members of the delegation started shopping on the spot. Duffy also emphasized the chain’s policy of hiring from the neighborhoods where the stores were located. Closing the deal, however, would depend on a healthy chunk of cash from the state regional council.
Three years ago you went to then Mayor Matt Driscoll and asked for support for bringing a supermarket to the Southside. He said you didn’t have enough experience in that field. Now you are negotiating with a major chain for a store. What happened between then and now?
First of all it was at a National Action Network conference in Harlem that got the conversation started. There was the $3 million in litigation money from the sewerage treatment plant which the county felt beholden to for this side of town. We established a committee and with a real democratic process, this became the number one goal under economic development. That was a starting point, and we bought a building. There were some leads that didn’t work out, but we wanted to demonstrate to Mayor Driscoll that we had brought together a community group of professionals to help with the business plan, to help with the financial projections, to help with the marketing campaign.
In his eyes we were credible enough that he would invest in two projects: one a market study that he commissioned, and an environmental study, and the city took up those tasks. Once we had that we got an architect to draw up plans. Then we knew it was doable. We had always thought about a 35,000 square foot building, and we had it. At the same time, we were forming our own company to do this, and we did apply for New York State Regional Council money and we were not successful. We were really disappointed.
Did your lack of experience concern you when you tried to form your own company?
If we couldn’t get someone to run it, we wanted to form a company and hire people who had the experience. We went through the legal ramifications. We were still on that track when this happened. We contacted the governor’s office, and they suggested we look at Price Rite.
What makes you think that the people in the neighborhood would actually shop in the store?
One of the first things we did was invest in what we called Jubilee Shopping cards. To this day we have over 4,000 folks signed up through churches, Neighborhood Watch, Pioneer Homes, Central Village. We got that synergy behind us. We knew the people would support us. It’s taken three years, but that’s a short period in my mind. How long did it take to change Armory Square, or Automobile Row, or Westcott? It takes time.
Look at Downtown. Somehow, in our community, we have been so disillusioned about someone caring about us. We don’t see anything happening. You look at the last 30 years on the Southside of Syracuse, the only thing that has happened of any consequence to development was Castle Rest turning into the Vivian Teall Nursing Home, but nothing else in terms of meaningful job growth.
With the relationship with Neil Duffy, the president of Price Rite, we feel that we are a good fit just from his mission, with Time of Jubilee, natural allies with each other. What we bring to the table is a brand of who we are, to get people to be excited to say, “I want to support this initiative.” When we went down to Vestal, we were blown away by the store in terms of cleanliness, pricing, the staff. It was just a win-win for us.
The prices were amazing, but I think there was even more impact from the attitudes of the staff, the professionalism and friendliness. They spoke of creating 100 to 125 jobs, opportunities for our youth. What kind of training will be necessary?
Listening to Neil Duffy, the model they do when they first hire, they would take our people and they would go to either Vestal or Rochester to observe their peers who have already been trained working. They invest money in training. At Vestal everybody, even the person mopping the floor, said hello to you, asked if they could help you find something. You didn’t see anyone with a cell phone in their back pocket. This encourages kids to get educated. There’s hope. To make up for early losses, there has to be an investment for long term stability.
To make this happen you will need a significant investment from the State Regional Council. How much do you need?
Well, they’re crunching the numbers. If they come back and say we need $2.2 million, there should be no problem. When you talk about they’re going to hire 120 part time workers plus 35 full time workers it makes sense for the city, CEO, the university to get behind this. This is the first step. This is the mother.
July 2012 Edition of Urban CNY Online