Critics and supporters of a state subsidized development in Germantown may find some parallels with a similar project by the same players in a nearby suburb.
Rep. Rosita Youngblood (D., 198th) is one who has criticized the political deal making that allowed Chelten Plaza developer and Fresh Grocer owner, Pat Burns, to maintain a claim on $3 million in state development funds slated for Germantown while switching his development plan from a full service Fresh Grocer supermarket to a smaller, less comprehensive discount store called Save-A-Lot.
“If you’re getting this money, why didn’t you do the original plan?” she asked in an earlier interview. “Because it is apparent to me that there is a need for a large grocery store.”
Some elected officials in Darby Borough seem to sympathize with Youngblood’s sentiment over a recent Burns development there, which is also anchored by a new Save-A-Lot.
“I think 90 percent of the population didn’t know that it was tax payer money,” said Paula Brown, a former mayor of Darby Borough about the Darby Borough Town Center strip mall. “They thought it was a private developer so they wouldn’t have a say about it.”
Brown says Burns pushed through a development that was a shadow of what it could have been if the original Fresh Grocer plan had become a reality. According to her, the original conversations with Burns years ago, when she was in office, were for a Fresh Grocer on the long vacant site, which like Chelten Plaza also used to have a gas station on it.
Today, the newly minted Darby Town Center on McDade Boulevard features a Sav-A-Lot that is run by Burns’ protege Shawn Rinnier, who will also run the new Germantown Save-A-Lot. (Watch for a related NewsWorks article about Rinnier later today.)
When it opened last December the project was heralded as the first supermarket in the Darby area for 30 years. However, less than a mile away an existing Sav-A-Lot closed within days of the new store opening, and a discount produce chain has long operated directly across the street from the site.
Brown was excited by the original idea for the development eight years ago, but when the Town Center development became a reality that feeling disappeared. “There was a time when Darby had five supermarkets. Now we have none,” she complained.
Burns denied that he ever discussed Fresh Grocer as a possibility for the development in Darby, though he did privately consider the possibility, he said.
The Save-A-Lot located at Town Center is part of a larger 142,000-square-foot retail center, according to press releases. The same releases list the center’s other tenants as DEAL$, Popeye’s, Hair World, Hilldale Kitchen, a Chinese restaurant, Wine and Spirits Shop and a laundromat. However there are currently two vacant storefronts in the plaza, no Chinese restaurant or laundromat, and instead of a Wine and Spirits there is a six-pack beer seller attached to the Hilldale Kitchen restaurant. The establishment advertises 99-cent single cans of beer in its windows.
Hilldale Kitchen is also run by Shawn Rinnier, it gets its name from a successful 1920s era African American baseball team from the area and sits only a matter of yards away from an existing full-service beer distributor.
Burns said he knew about the beer distributor when his development company opened the Hilldale Kitchen and he said that Hilldale provides a different service in that it only sells small quantities of beer.
DEAL$ is owned by the same company as the Dollar Tree proposed for Chelten Plaza. There is also a Hair World less than one mile away in Yeadon. It is unclear if that store will close.
In many ways the Darby project was a sweetheart deal. Burns grew up near Darby and went to school as a young man just blocks away from the supermarket site.
As with the Chelten Plaza site, Burns had the help of local politicians to get the project going. State Senator Anthony Williams (D., Philla and Del.) pushed through millions in support for the development.
Similar to his chief supporter for Chelten Plaza, state Rep. Dwight Evans (D., 203rd), Burns has made significant campaign contributions to Williams.
The $10.3 million Darby Town Center was funded primarily by New Market Tax Credit loans through the publicly subsidized Reinvestment Fund, and $4.25 million in state grants.
In early December Burns pushed for an additional $2 million in state RACP grants through the borough. In a recent phone interview he explained, “the project needed more funds to sustain itself.”
He also received $15,000 in local grant money for environmental clean up on the site.
At both Chelten Plaza and Darby Town Center, Burns’ choice of a smaller, limited selection market, Save-A-Lot, instead of the full service Fresh Grocer is based on internal determinations by his company that, he says, left him only one option.
In the case of Chelten Plaza he referred to a market study performed by Consumer Comprehension, LLC, which sites low population density of the neighborhood surrounding the site as the main reason to expect a full service market to fail there. (See the summary link to the market study findings)
For Town Center, Burns said the lot, which accommodates 700 parking spaces in addition to the shopping center, could not physically fit a 50,000 square foot Fresh Grocer. The store would have had to be L-shaped, he said, which could have ruined his ability to run it well.
A short walk from Darby Town Center is a strip mall in Yeadon. There a resident, who asked not to be identified, said the new Sav-A-Lot opened at the cost of one closer to his home.
“It kind of left people [in Yeadon] high and dry,” he said, standing near the closed storefront. “And I bet these smaller stores will leave now that the grocery store is gone, no reason to come here.”
The resident also complained about the meat selection at the new Save-A-Lot and said the nearby Produce Junction was better for fruits and vegetables.
In the Darby area not only did the Yeadon Save-A-Lot close less than a mile away when the Town Center store opened, but within three miles, Burns’ Barclay Square Fresh Grocer closed this past summer, just as construction on the Town Center was getting underway. Burns had run that store for 20 years.
In Germantown the new and expanded Save-A-Lot comes with the loss of the former Fresh Grocer on the site. (The Save-A-Lot located on Wayne will close but be replaced by the new one at Chelten Plaza.)
Similar to Germantown, Darby has been struggling to redevelop itself for many years. Articles that surrounded the Town Center’s opening talk about a long dry spell in area development and they tend to be thick with praise for Burns’ efforts. And many inside Darby’s town offices applaud the development as well.
“I think the place is worth a fortune, now we don’t have to leave Darby to go grocery shopping,” said Darby Borough Council President Janice Davis in a recent phone interview.
Asked if she would prefer a Fresh Grocer at the location Davis said, “a Fresh Grocer is a very nice store but maybe a little expensive for Darby.”
But former Mayor Brown was not alone in her criticism of the project. A long time political ally, Borough Councilwoman Edna Stockley also saw the process of approving Town Center as being fraught with transparency issues. She claims, as the only voting opponent to the project, she was pushed out of important special meetings where most of the real decisions occurred.
Howard Blackson Jr., vice president of Darby Borough Council, said Stockley is just wrong on that point and that meeting times are perfectly clear and open to her.
“There has always been transparency within our Council meetings, there has never been anything underhanded. We don’t do that,” he said.
Correction: This is a corrected version of this story. The original version had incorrect information about Fresh Grocer store square footage, the length of time the Barclay Square Fresh Grocer was open and political support for the Darby development.