Jun 29, 2023 - News

Food co-op will be West Boulevard’s first grocery store in decades

Three Sisters Market NC community-owned food co-operative in the West Boulevard Corridor of Charlotte

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

West Boulevard community members expect to break ground by early next year on a long-awaited grocery store.

Why it matters: For decades, the West Boulevard corridor, a largely underserved area, has been passed over by major retailers. It’s long been considered a grocery desert, a place where people lack access to groceries. For most, the closest option for fresh produce and quality meats is the Walmart on Wilkinson Boulevard. Often, those without cars rely on nearby convenience stores for nonperishables.

  • “Just imagine doing your regular grocery shopping and having to hop on a city bus to get back to a stop that then requires you to have to walk to get to your front door,” says Guy Cousins, chair of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition’s Co-operative Food Market board. “It has been 30, 40 years of that.”

By the numbers: Almost 15% of Mecklenburg County households are considered food insecure, meaning they lack reliable access to nutritious food, according to the health department.

  • In the west Charlotte zip code 28208, just 34% of housing units are within a half-mile of a full-service chain grocery store. That percentage drops to 0% in the tract where the Three Sisters Market site is, the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer shows.
  • The average age of death in that tract is 64, while the countywide average is 72.

“It goes without saying how many quality of life outcomes are tied to food security,” says Sharika Comfort, executive director of the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition.

Of note: Grocery chains, which operate on thin margins and tend to be picky when choosing locations, claim it’s not always profitable to open stores in lower-income areas where they’re needed most, as Axios’ Paige Hopkins reported.

What’s happening: With the guidance of local developers, the West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition is designing an approximately 12,000-square-foot community-owned grocery store for the intersection of Clanton and West Boulevard called Three Sisters Market. It will be the city’s first food co-op.

  • The store will also have work and meeting spaces as well as a community kitchen, where residents can take cooking classes. It’s also for entrepreneurs to grow their food and drink businesses and place their products on the market’s shelves.
  • “It is really a community space that also meets a community need that the major retailers just weren’t either willing or able to,” Comfort says.

The latest: The food co-op is years in the making. But it’s finally starting to gain traction with a recent $3 million commitment from Mecklenburg County. The promise of substantial funding has renewed faith that the market, an estimated $10-million project, will come to fruition. The federal government has earmarked $750,000.

  • Organizers hope to get a formal contribution from the city and will launch a capital campaign to raise the remainder of the money later this year.
Congress for the New Urbanism held a three-day charrette with the coalition and developed a vision for the Three Sisters Market and surrounding area using community feedback. Courtesy of West Boulevard Neighborhood Coalition
  • The coalition is in the design phase and is going through the city rezoning process for the site. Once ground is broken, construction will take an estimated 10 to 12 months. The co-op would likely open in 2025.
  • Plus, designers from the Congress for the New Urbanism recently helped the coalition collect input from the community and develop plans for the grocery store, as part of a larger vision to turn West Boulevard into an “urban main street.” Currently, pedestrians walk the narrow sidewalks as cars zip down the corridor beside them.

How it works: Food co-ops are owned by community members. At Three Sisters Market, residents who buy shares will help make decisions about the store, from the products it carries to the programs it hosts. Organizers are aiming to sign up around 7,500 to 10,000 members, ideally for a one-time fee of $100 per household for one share of stock, although those details aren’t finalized.

  • Anyone could become a member, but only people who reside in the market area will earn voting rights.
  • The coalition is hiring a general manager who will lead decisions about staffing and inventory.

Three Sisters Market will be built on a large grassy lot next to an existing community farm, neighboring the West Boulevard Library.

  • Youth from the community are employed to work on the 1-plus acre urban farm through a program called Seeds for Change. They grow squash, corn, tomatoes, kale and sweet potatoes, and then sell those produce to the community at affordable prices.
  • Last year the teens produced 35 gallons of honey, which they also sold at Rhino Market & Deli.

The big picture: Three Sisters Market is just one project intended to boost the west side of Charlotte.

  • The city is investing millions into improving intersections along West Boulevard through its Corridors for Opportunity program. It’s planning features like crosswalks, pedestrian signals and a plaza.
Seeds4Change Three Sisters Market community-owned food co-operative in the West Boulevard Corridor of Charlotte
Seeds4Change farm. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Flashback: Conversations about bringing a grocer to the corridor began decades ago after the last store closed, Comfort tells me.

  • Retailers never followed through with plans to come to the area. In the late ’90s, a federal grant was awarded to build a shopping center off West Boulevard, but no store committed to the space, according to a 2003 Charlotte Observer article.
  • Food Lion backed out of plans to open a store near Clanton Road after Walmart announced its Wilkinson Boulevard store. A Food Lion spokesperson told the paper that the chain didn’t believe the area could ” support multiple supermarkets at this time.”

“The cooperative market really became an idea or out of necessity,” Comfort says.

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