New Bakers Square shopping center energizes a community

If it sounded a bit like a revival meeting under the big tent set up in the parking lot of the old Tastykake Baking site on Friday, that was hardly coincidental.

Area residents and community representatives gathered with politicians and business leaders to break ground on Bakers Square, a 30-acre, 220,000 square-foot “community shopping center” to be anchored by a Brown’s ShopRite supermarket.

But many said what was really happening there in the parking lot on Fox Street, with the sound of heavy construction equipment mixing with cheers and shouts of thanks to God, was nothing less than a resurrection.

“If you built it here, and if you work here, you’ll spend your money here,” said Vance Reynolds, a 13th Ward committeeman and 62-year neighborhood resident.

Jeff Brown, president of Brown’s Super Stores, said the Bakers Square location will be his company’s sixth urban store and at 71,000 square feet, will be one of the largest. It will continue what he said is his now-proven belief that large-scale retail developments can work in distressed neighborhoods.

“Everybody’s seen what happens in other neighborhoods,” Brown said of his stores on Island Avenue and at 52nd and Parkside. “They know it can work here, too.”

The Bakers Square ShopRite will include an American Heritage Credit Union, a medical clinic and a social services office. “If you’re entitled to something and you haven’t been able to get it, we’re going to help you get it,” Brown said.

Elsewhere on the site, the 460,000 square-foot Tasty Baking Production Factory building will be preserved, and redeveloped with retail, educational and institutional offices, and possibly a parking structure to hold about 350 cars.

Bakers Square will actively seek small mom-and-pop businesses and junior-box retailers and restaurants meant to serve the 167,000 people who live within two miles of the site, said Gregory R. Bianchi of US Realty Associates, which is handling leasing for Metro Development Co.

The project will bring about 350 construction jobs, about 700 permanent ones, once opened. Of four major sub-contracts awarded so far, three were awarded to minority-owned firms, said Wendall Young IV, president of UFCW Local 1776.

Most importantly, the store will also bring aisles of fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat and extensive international grocery offerings — even local legend Sid Booker’s Shrimp — to one of Philadelphia’s biggest food deserts.

City Council candidate Cindy Bass, who appeared representing U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, talked of growing up in the neighborhood but “if you wanted to buy food you had to go all the way to City Line Avenue, if you had a car that was working.”

Many who attended said local residents are looking forward to being able to work, shop and spend locally and were glad to see the continued development joining nearby Temple University Health System and the Pep Boys corporate offices.

Still, Reynolds said, the neighborhood’s work isn’t done — across the street, the empty, sprawling Budd Co. complex sits awaiting for its turn.

“That’s the next target,” he said.

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