CHESTER, Pa. -- In Chester, a city where hard times often plow under shiny promises, a hunger-relief agency's pledge to build America's first nonprofit supermarket was greeted skeptically at first.
But Philabundance may be confounding local doubters. Its Fare & Square grocery store, seven years in the making, is ready to open its doors this morning, a rare oasis in what has been called a food desert.
"No one believed this was coming," said Denina Hood, a Chester native and an employee of the store that will become the first supermarket in town since 2001. "But this store isn't going anywhere."
Usually in the business of distributing donated food to pantries in the Delaware Valley, Philabundance, a nonprofit, has augmented its mission and become a store owner, charging prices 8 percent to 10 percent lower than small urban grocers.
Unlike most store owners, Philabundance is obliged not to make a profit in Chester, declared a food desert by the federal government -- a low-income area lacking ready access to healthy food.
The agency said it would strive to offer fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meats at the lowest possible prices.
In a city of 33,000 people where it's nearly impossible to buy a head of lettuce in any of the 100 corner stores, that qualifies as a game-changer, said Bill Clark, the agency's executive director, who planned and created the $7 million store with the financial help of numerous partners.
These include the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Delaware Valley Regional Economic Development Fund, the city of Chester, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, Sunoco, the Reinvestment Fund, and others. Mr. Clark also credits the help of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., and Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware.
"I haven't been able to sleep this week," Mr. Clark said. "It's been years of anticipation."
Anyone can shop at the 16,000-square-foot store, with a cheery purple-and-iguana-green color scheme.
But low-income people will be offered an advantage. Shoppers with annual incomes equal to or less than twice the federal poverty level of around $23,000 for a family of four can accrue a 7 percent store credit each time they shop, to be applied toward future purchases.
With a poverty rate of 36.9 percent, and unemployment around 13 percent (compared with a little higher than 7 percent nationwide), Chester desperately needs businesses like Fare & Square, said Stephen Kauffman, professor of social work at Widener University in Chester.
Once a bustling center of shipbuilding, Chester lost industry and half its population in the years after World War II. Without jobs, it became what Mr. Clark has called "a bottomless hole of need."
People have promised the city goodies before -- most recently, numerous jobs were proffered when Chester got a casino and soccer stadium, said the Rev. James Ley, archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania and a board member of Chester Eastside Ministries.
Many of those never materialized, he said.
As though adding insult to an already injured populace, Rev. Ley said, the casino changed its name from Harrah's Chester to Harrah's Philadelphia. And new highway ramps from I-95 make it possible for people to get to the PPL Park soccer stadium without having to go through downtown, he added.
Fare & Square is offering 69 jobs, 82 percent of which will be held by Chester residents, said Marlo DelSordo, director of marketing and communications for Philabundance.
Rev. Ley likes the idea of Fare & Square, he said, because it appears to be delivering what it promised. Chester residents agree.
"This gives us dignity, to have a place of our own to shop in," said June Duncan, 68, a retired retail worker, who lives in Chester and had to travel outside the city to buy food.
Mr. Clark's contention that Fare & Square is the country's only nonprofit supermarket was confirmed by the Food Marketing Institute, a food industry group.
In what's being described as a coincidence, the private supermarket chain Bottom Dollar Food is planning to open a store in Chester in 2014, suddenly allowing Chester residents greater options.
That's good news, said Eric Wright, who works in membership services at Fare & Square. He said he heard lots of people predict the Philabundance store would shut down "like everything else does in Chester."
"But I tell them they can embrace this idea. And they can see that people aren't giving up on Chester."businessnews