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City without a store no more: Two markets coming to Chester WHYY

By Elana Gordon

July 26, 2013

For more than a decade, residents of Chester, Pennsylvania, have looked elsewhere for basic groceries. That’s about to change, and people couldn’t be happier.

“Everyone’s saying the same thing,” said Mayor John Linder. “Finally. We’ve got a market.”

Linder helped break ground on a future Bottom Dollar Food Store on 15th Street and Edgemont Friday. Developers anticipate the store, a completely private endeavor, will be open early next year.

“We really need it,” said 73-year-old Theresa Ferguson, who lives in senior housing across the street. Ferguson looks to nearby drug stores and corner shops for some essentials, but she depends on others to drive her to supermarkets outside the city limits for other necessities.

She’s not alone.

Carlos Ojeda, an Iraq War veteran in a wheelchair, regularly takes the bus to Wilmington for groceries.

“It’s not fun but you gotta do it,” Ojeda said, while waiting for nearly an hour at the bus stop.

Linder says it’s not just an inconvenience for residents. The city as a whole suffers, with millions of dollars in potential revenue going to neighboring businesses and communities.

The city has been trying for years to court a big grocery store, but Linder says he and others have struggled against the belief that big supermarkets couldn’t turn a profit in a place such as Chester.

“Bottom Dollar is unique,” said Bruce Meidinger, district manager for the store. “It’s a smaller operation and can come into locations like this where traditional supermarkets wouldn’t be able to.”

Between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Bottom Dollar has about 60 stores, according to Meidinger.

Friendly competition

Chester’s last major grocery store closed more than 10 years ago, but that site also is experiencing a revival. A regional food bank, Philabundance, is preparing to open a nonprofit grocery store in that very location this fall.

“It’s like a phoenix, it’s coming back,” said Bill Clark, the group’s executive director.

The store, to be called Fare & Square, is a pilot for Philabundance, and perhaps for the country, says Clark. He’s not aware of any other food bank that operates a grocery store. Clark says the food banks in Chester have been overwhelmed with people in need, distributing about a million pounds of donated food annually. That’s still not enough, he says, but he and others hoped to address a  major part of the problem – a lack of nearby, affordable, quality produce – by opening the store.

Clark also hopes the nonprofit model will make the place “more resilient” in the long term, and allow them to lower prices. Sunoco and the the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are some of the store’s larger donors, enabling the $6 million project to get off the ground. Bottom Dollar was also a contributor.

Linder and others are thrilled about having not one, but two options for groceries. They also hope it will drive future economic development. Combined, the two stores are expected to create about 100 jobs.

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