When the Safeway supermarket on West Seventh Street closed this past spring after more than 30 years in that location, the number of easily accessible grocery options for downtown residents took a significant hit.
That dynamic could soon change, though, as representatives from a local grocer look to expand to the roughly 40,700-square-foot space in the College Park Plaza Shopping Center.
Bob Thompson, general manager of Common Market on Buckeystown Pike, said on Tuesday that the company is moving ahead on opening a second, member-owned natural foods store at the West Seventh Street location.
“We’re putting all of our efforts into the Safeway [site]. We’re trying to make this happen,” he said.
It’s no secret that Common Market representatives have been looking to open another store closer to downtown. Last year, they were eyeing the old Carmack-Jay’s site on North Market Street, but Thompson said over the summer those plans had fizzled. With the focus narrowed to only the Safeway building, Thompson said he could have some news to share in 30 to 45 days.
“It’s looking very promising right now,” he said. “By the end of January we should have a really good idea about where we are.”
Thompson explained that a few hurdles need to be cleared to finalize an expansion to the site, which include figuring the cost of retrofitting the building, making sure everything is feasible, and ensuring members of the company’s co-op are on board.
“We can sell stock in our company to try and raise money,” Thompson said of the conversations that he needs to have with co-op members.
Mayor Michael O’Connor said on Tuesday that the potential for Common Market to come to the Safeway site is a good thing for the city, even though it is not downtown.
“It’s exciting to know Common Market is looking at another site in the city,” he said. “That’s a vacant storefront that the community was concerned about.”
And although the idea that a much-needed food store could be coming downtown was an exciting prospect when the Carmack-Jay’s site was on the table, Thompson said the Safeway site — still close to downtown and within walking distance for many residents — was ultimately more feasible and desirable.
“The Safeway store currently is a grocery store, or was a grocery store. It has all of the updated power and all of the floor drains, and all of the safety equipment is there. That wasn’t [so] in the Carmack-Jay’s building,” Thompson explained. “The construction costs are actually less for us to do what we have to do to get the store open.”
Thompson declined to offer a price range for the construction costs because he plans to bid out the jobs. He also said the company plans to purchase the building as part of the expansion, but he would not discuss prices.
Thompson pointed out as well that the building is twice the size of the Buckeystown Pike store — although he expects the same sales volume — and added that employees are tossing around a lot of ideas for it that the current store does not offer.
“The store will just be bigger. We’re going to have a bakery in the store. We’ve never had [one] before,” he said. “We’re looking to potentially be able to do organic catering. ... Some of this is preliminary, but we’ve been talking a pizza kitchen, a burrito station.”
And while Common Market is different from Safeway or other grocery chains in terms of affordability given that mostly organic food is sold, Thompson said shoppers of all income levels will still be able to shop there.
“We’re not going to be able to price Heinz ketchup the way Wegmans is — first of all, because we’re not going to have Heinz ketchup — but will we have affordable options for food? Yes,” Thompson said.
Connie Ray, manager of the Frederick Food Security Network at Hood College, said the loss of the Safeway was a blow to the downtown area, as it created what is known as a food desert.
In a food desert, she explained, a certain percentage of people living below the federal poverty line do not have access to viable food options.
“Within a food desert typically people end up shopping at corner stores, convenience stores, which vary on what they carry,” Ray said.
To determine food deserts that exist locally, Ray said the Frederick Food Security Network used a half-mile radius because most people cannot walk farther than that with groceries. While the Safeway was operating, it was within walking range to many parts of downtown. Therefore, if a Common Market opens at the site, it could eliminate the food desert.
While Ray expressed some concerns about the affordability of Common Market in comparison with other food stores, she said she has met with store representatives and believe they will work to address that.
“It’s something that they are aware of, and I believe they are working to make that affordable for those people,” she said.