The 2.2-acre site at the corner of Meeting and Columbus streets in downtown Charleston is devoid of grocery shoppers for the first time in more than 50 years.
The Bi-Lo store closed its doors Saturday, leaving Eastside and Meeting Street residents without a grocery store or pharmacy nearby. The two closest stores — Harris Teeter on East Bay Street and Food Lion on Upper King Street — are both more than 1 mile away. A Publix store planned for the under-construction WestEdge development is also about a mile away.
Such a distance can prove difficult for senior citizens or low-income residents without cars, according to Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who grew up on the Eastside.
Piggly Wiggly operated a grocery store at the Meeting Street site for decades before closing its doors in 2013, as the company began shedding its assets amid financial troubles. Southeastern Grocers acquired the site and opened a Bi-Lo in its place.
The current land owner, McAlister Development Co., has not shared its plans for the site and did not return calls seeking comment. The Mount Pleasant-based firm bought the site in July 2015 for $10.8 million, Charleston County land records show.
Gilliard said if the Meeting Street site does not secure another lower-priced grocery store and pharmacy and it is instead replaced with high-end stores, condos or a hotel, gentrification of the Eastside and West Side neighborhoods will accelerate.
The land sits in the midst of a transitioning upper peninsula — where construction abounds and real estate prices are skyrocketing.
The grocery store site sits on a block between King Street and the Eastside neighborhood.. The high-end, mixed-use Midtown development flanks the store on one side; on the other, large cranes reach high into the air as construction continues on Evening Post Industries’ Courier Square project.
“We have watched a great exodus of blacks from Charleston to North Charleston since the late 1980s. ... Losing that store permanently would only reinforce gentrification, and we don’t want that,” Gilliard said. “If someone puts a hotel there, that’s not conducive to the neighborhoods around there. It just won’t work.”
Gilliard said he wrote the city requesting a community meeting about the site’s future. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg recently met with neighborhood leaders, residents, business owners and city council members to develop a three-pronged plan for the spot — a sort of stopgap between the store closure and when development begins.
The city plans to partner with Lowcountry Street Grocery, a farmers-market-on-wheels, to provide on-site healthy foods to area residents, and with the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority to provide rides. CARTA will create a route from the former Bi-Lo site to the Food Lion and CVS shopping center at 1015 King St., located on the other side of the Crosstown Expressway.
Tecklenburg said the city also plans to develop incentives to attract a new grocer to the property “if and when the site is redeveloped,” according to a news release. That decision, however, is ultimately up to the property owner.
Gilliard said he is urging Tecklenburg to put pressure on the developer to put an affordable grocery store and pharmacy on the site. He said area residents rely on having food and medications within walking distance.
“This is a last stand for the Eastside,” Gilliard said. “We should be focusing on affordable housing and maintaining black families in the city. To move a food store would be detrimental to these folks.”
Access to healthy foods
The city’s new partnership with Lowcountry Street Grocery is an effort to bring fresh fruits, vegetables and meats to the area now that Bi-Lo has closed. The initiative could help stave off a food desert situation for upper peninsula residents.
Food deserts typically occur in poor, urban areas that are devoid of easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables, often resulting from a lack of nearby grocery stores or farmers’ markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Lindsey Barrow Jr. founded his business in Charleston to make healthy foods more accessible in low-income neighborhoods. His business model is to sell food from area farmers for more money in affluent neighborhoods and for less money in poorer neighborhoods.
After raising $47,000 on a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, Barrow bought and retrofitted an old school bus, dubbed Nell. He has since been building out the concept and team.
Barrow said it is too early in the process with the city to comment on any specifics regarding his involvement at the Bi-Lo site. In a previous interview, he said:
“We’re a couple of miles from some of the best restaurants in the South, if not in the country, and just a couple of miles up the road, we have children living further beneath the poverty line than anywhere else in the state of South Carolina. That’s insane. ... We want to provide access to fruits and vegetables and education to make it something tangible for people.”
No details are available on CARTA’s involvement either, including how often or for how long the route will run, or how much it will cost. CARTA spokesman Daniel Brock said agency and city officials are expected to meet in the next few weeks to parse out details.
In a news release, Tecklenburg said he looks forward to working with site owners, residents and neighborhood leaders “to ensure that our citizens continue to have access to affordable, high-quality groceries in this area of our city.”
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 19, 2016, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.