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COLUMN

City officials want to know: Can a grocery survive downtown?

A $15,000 study is fine, but how much should government pay to do what market hasn't?

Saturday, July 13, 2013 - 5:50 am

It's not quite the chicken or the egg. But for anyone hoping to attract a grocery to downtown Fort Wayne 16 years after the last one closed, the Catch-22 principle is the same:

Which comes first: the residents needed to sustain the business or the business needed to attract and serve the residents?

Answering that question may cost the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission up to $15,000 – and, officials hope, persuade someone to serve a downtown housing market that is growing but remains relatively small.

On Monday, the commission is expected to seek proposals from consultants wanting to study the demand for a downtown grocery – two words that haven't gone together since Tapp's Family Market at 120 W. Wayne St. closed in 1997. City officials and central residents have long bemoaned the void, and with several new housing projects either under way or planned, most notably the Anthony Wayne Building condos and apartments in Harrison Square, Redevelopment Director Greg Leatherman said the time may at last be right.

“I'm not saying we're ready. Does downtown have enough (residents) to sustain a store? And if so, what kind?” he said. “Most (groceries) operate on thin margins and high volume.”

That kind of suburban volume isn't likely downtown anytime soon, however, which is why Leatherman suspects any successful store will have to offer “value-added” products such as ready-to-eat goods along with traditional items. The study could help identify the ideal product mix, location, size and, just maybe, the question you knew was coming:

If the free market hasn't been sufficient to attract a grocery back to downtown Fort Wayne, to what degree is the city willing to make up the difference?

“The city's role is yet to be determined, said Redevelopment Specialist Sharon Feasel, who is crafting the request for proposals from consultants. “Grocery stores are hard (downtown). Some cities larger than Fort Wayne don't have them,” she said.

History indicates, however, that the city doesn't pay for feasibility studies unless it wants the study to produce action – and is willing to help pay for it if necessary.

In 2002, a $168,000 study produced a “blueprint” for downtown redevelopment, which was updated by consultant Gianni Long for $62,000 three years later. The broad scope of the study was later more narrowly focused on specific goals.

In 2004, C.H. Johnson Consulting of Chicago recommended construction of a 300-room downtown hotel. Today, the 250-room Courtyard by Marriott is a key part of the city's Harrison Square project, most of which was paid for through private funding.

A 2005 study by attorney Jack Swarbrick suggested downtown as a sports hub. Today Parkview Field is Harrison Square's crown jewel.

More to the point, a $40,500 study in 2006 by New Jersey-based Zimmerman/Volk Associates indicated that up to 3,750 Allen County households would prefer to live in urban neighborhoods – a demand that, if real, remains largely untapped despite recent projects.

More recently, a $30,000 study in 2011 by Ted Spitzer suggested Fort Wayne could support a year-round farmer's market. “Most cities our size have a (year-round) market. We're asking, 'Why don't we?' ” Feasel explained at the time.

We still don't – at least officially. But that's precisely the point city officials should consider before they do more than study the need for a grocery.

Despite the lack of an “official” farmers market and dedicated facility, several private markets have sprung up – almost organically, as it were – since Spitzer issued his findings. They might not fulfill planners' vision of a permanent facility, but they indicate the market can and will respond to a perceived demand without a large investment of tax dollars. In fact, Downtown Improvement District President Bill Brown said he knows of at least one person interested in opening a grocery. Local businessman Scott Glaze, who bought the former Instant Copy building on Wayne Street last year, was reportedly considering a grocery there as well, but the building remains empty.

But the market, while wise, is not always swift, and redevelopment officials properly want to sustain positive momentum once it has been achieved. So a $15,000 grocery study would seem to be a reasonable investment, especially if it can attract the attention of a business willing to take a risk without a major government safety net.

That, however, remains to be seen – and the result will go a long way toward determining whether any additional city dollars are needed, or justified.

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.