Fresh Grocer closed with state loan still unpaid

A senior woman stood outside the closed Fresh Grocer on Chelten Ave. Saturday afternoon addressing other would be shoppers who were headed toward the store.

“Going shopping? Not here, look inside,” she called.

Shock and awe

Inside, the shelves were bare. The doors were locked, and a hand written sign in the window read “Closed 4 ever!”

This grocery store at the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues has been generating a lot of buzz in Germantown over the last week or so, when community members first learned it was slated for closure. For most it was a surprise.

On Saturday between 2 and 2:30 p.m. those locked doors stopped at least 15 shoppers; most left in apparent disbelief.

Bill Terry had a front row seat, he’s run a hack cab out of that parking lot for the last 15 years.

“People are still coming up to the building looking up in amazement,” he said. “It’s like there is a death in the family. They stare at the window, stop and put their hand over their mouth and I just watch them waiting to see if they need a ride somewhere else.”

A series of email firestorms have cropped up across Germantown among neighbors and activists trying to find out what happened to their local market and what exactly will happen next to the vast space that has been left behind.

Previous state funding 

One local resident among the most surprised was state Representative Rosita Youngblood (D., 198th), who learned of the closing with most others last week.

“There should have been a community meeting, there should have been a discussion about what the plan is there,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Eighth District City Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller did meet with store officials about the plans for the site eight months ago, according to a spokesperson, but apparently failed to inform community members, or Youngblood, that the store would be closing.

“I should have been included in the meeting,” Youngblood said.

Like many neighbors, Youngblood was particularly incensed because plans for the future of the lot also seemed to be shrouded in secrecy. After pressure from local activists, property owners Pulaski Partners LP issued a press release confirming what locals felt they had known for a while – that the Fresh Grocer would be replaced by a discount market, Save-A-Lot, that may not have a similar selection for shoppers.

Resident Larry Simmons, the former chief of staff for state Representative John Myers (D., 201st), remembers when that Fresh Grocer opened in 2006 it was set to receive state subsidy for community development – he was in on those meetings.

Youngblood, who’s district includes the closed store, was surprised when her aid received confirmation of Simmons’ claims from state officials on Friday afternoon. The email came in at 4:59 p.m., saying state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program funds were planned for the now closing Fresh Grocer – again, something Youngblood felt she should have been party to long before now. The email did not include any more details about that plan.

“I told [my aid] ‘Monday – find out,’” she said.

Separate from the RACP plan, when the Fresh Grocer opened the company received a $556,000 fresh food financing loan from the publicly funded Redevelopment Fund, plus a $250,000 grant, according to Christina Szczepanski, a program manager at TRF. TRF’s head of loans and investments, Donald Hinkle-Brown, said the planned RACP funds were set up through state Representative Dwight Evans’ office (D., 203rd), then the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, but that the funds fell through because new construction never happened at the site.

Feeling played

Local residents have felt played by the Fresh Grocer’s role in recent events. Through spokesperson, Carly Spross, the company has denied any connection with Save-A-Lot or the property owners at Chelten and Pulaski. Though activists last week uncovered some apparent overlaps among the companies: Save-A-Lot and Fresh Grocer share the same address and phone number as well as the same management firm, Philly Metro Management, while Philly Metro Management shares the same registered corporate address as a company call Pulaski Real Estate Inc., in Wayne.

Part of the local anger stems from the long term neglect of the property at Chelten and Pulaski, which stretches all the way to Rittenhouse Street and includes a long abandoned gas station building. The Pulaski Partners plan appears to include the demolition of this smaller building and the erection of another single story strip-mall style structure near Rittenhouse.

Last year community members gained hope for the large plot when city planners “up-zoned” it from strip mall to C-3, which allowed a mid-rise development on the site by right. It was something many hoped would encourage new, denser development near the busy Chelten Train Station.

But with Pulaski’s plan to maintain the property as a low-slung strip mall and essentially down-grade the food product’s available there, some feel an opportunity is being lost for Germantown. 

Pat Burns, owner of Fresh Grocer, Shawn Rinnier, owner of Save-A-Lot, and Pulaski Partners LP all did not respond to requests for comment.

For Youngblood and others, the question of just who is calling the shots on the plan and what relation those players have to Fresh Grocer and the state funding is a key question. They think the answers might gain them some leverage over the type of development that might occur on the site.

Unfinished business

Spross claims the Fresh Grocer lost $750,000 last year alone at Chelten and Pulaski. Some in the neighborhood think that hard luck might have in-part come from the new Fresh Grocer built with $3.5 million in state subsidy and $4.5 million more in state subsidized loans, on Chew Ave. near La Salle University in 2009. That project, less than 2 miles away, came with promises of local jobs and access to high quality food.

Spross said the 50 jobs at the Chelten Ave, store will not be lost, but reassigned among other locations – about 30 of them going to Chew.

Asked whether the 230 mostly part time workers at the Chew store might have to lessen their hours to accommodate the new workers, Spross said, “We’re gonna make sure everybody has the same schedule that we can, to the best of our abilities.”

To leave the Chelten site, Spross said, Fresh Grocer terminated its lease with Pulaski and the company has no further relationship to what will go on there, except to invite shoppers to use the free shuttle from the empty parking lot on Chelten to their new store on Chew. (No such shuttle was running Saturday afternoon.)

However, Szczepanski at TRF said Fresh Grocer still has an outstanding state loan for its operations at the Chelten site, and that the plan was to pay that loan off using the financing that will come from the new project there.

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