Binghamton’s North Side Grocery Project – questions and few answers

On March 24, 2011, we attended a meeting of local organizations seeking to improve Binghamton, NY through community activism. In that meeting, we heard from Binghamton Councilwoman Lea Webb, speaking about the North Side Grocery Project. The subject caught our curiousity.

For those that are unaware, the North Side Grocery Project has been on-going since 2006. The purpose is to draw a grocery store into the northside of Binghamton, which has gone without this vital service since 1996. There have been several organizations involved at various points with this project, and multiple politicians. To date, there is no grocery store in Downtown or Northside Binghamton.

We will also note that for this article, we requested information from:

  • Councilwoman Lea Webb
  • Broome County Legislator Jason Garnar
  • Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo
  • Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan
  • David Currie of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition

    Of those named above, only Assemblywoman Lupardo and Legislator Garnar have responded to our questions from a week ago.

    Our curiosity started from the aforementioned meeting, run by David Currie of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition (BRSC). In this meeting Councilwoman Lea Webb discussed the North Side Grocery Project. We admit that prior to listening to Councilwoman Webb we had never heard of the Project. But the tone of the comments led us to wonder what was happening.

    There is no question that Binghamton is in need of revitalization. It is equally accepted that residents should not need to travel hours in some cases, or spend $20 or more in taxi costs, just to get groceries to sustain themselves. Therefore we support the concept of a North Side grocery store.

    We also do not dispute the reputed benefit that can be generated by a grocery store. It has been estimated that some $9 million a year is spent by residents of the northside of Binghamton, just on basic foods. Those funds could easily support a store of considerable size, and bring much needed work to the community. The benefit is like dominoes falling, in how these revenues can be a spark for the entire city.

    But this begs a few questions. The first is what caused the last grocery in Binghamton’s north side to fail. Though we looked for this information we did not find anything that would provide this answer. The closest to an answer we recieved was from Legislator Garnar, who speculated that a combination of factors were to blame. These included: high rent, lack of maintenence of Binghamton Plaza (the location of the last grocer), high energy prices, and/or a lack of business. Assemblywoman Lupardo shared many of the same conclusions with us in her respnse. All are reasonable, but unknown.

    This is not a big deal, but it nagged us that there was no one that has had involvement in the North Side Project (to our knowledge and were willing to respond) that had an answer to this fundemental question. Given was the fact that those who did respond had limited involvement in the Project. Yet, if the cause was a lack of business, it is critical in the potential of a future grocer entering the area. If it were other factors, they must be address to ensure the community is capable of being provided the service they need. Even the website to promote the Project fails to denote what happened.

    But there are other questions we sought answers for. Related directly to the first question was why there was a lapse of 10 years before another grocer was sought? Assemblywoman Lupardo was able to provide that answer for this. Due to market studies done, it was determined that from 1996 to at least 2006 a grocer for the north side was unprofitable. Which explains the gap, but remains a daunting question for the success and viability of the Project. We will return to this.

    Our research revealed that Mayor Ryan took up the issue of the North Side Grocery in 2006.

    “Building local food systems provides not only much needed income to small family farms, but also healthier and more environmentally sound food items to urban residents.”

    We do not dispute the comment by the Mayor. But that same article denoted that local grocers declined to enter the northside of Binghamton, necessitating an outside chain grocery. Again we believe that the factors surrounding the absence of a grocer for a decade (at that time) is critical to the entire Project, defeating the best efforts of Mayor Ryan as told to us by Assemblywoman Lupardo.

    But in 2008 there was a breakthrough. Oprah Winfrey, via her O Magazine highlighted the efforts of the North Side Grocery Project. Also in 2008 the Broome County Legislature provided a grant for $40,000 to assist with environmental testing, marketing, and other costs associated with developing the store.

    The effect of the Oprah involvement is open to debate. Other than garnering attention among those that read the magazine, and adding to the name recognition on the website nothing else has seemed to develop. It is quite possible that the attention from Oprah spurred the Broome Legislature into action, but that is merely speculation.

    More on the actual funds from the Legislature in a moment.

    In 2009 another breakthru occured. Discussions with Save-A-Lot lead to a potential for the grocer to open at 10-12 West State Street. These discussions also earned a grant of $150,000 from Senate President Malcolm Smith. Assemblywoman Lupardo was involved in the early stages of this grant, when she was an Asseblywoman. [We corrected the political office of Assemblywoman Lupardo, which we initially misreported. The error was ours and was noted by her office. Assemblywoman Lupardo was Broome County Legislator from 1999-2000. Her district included Binghamton's Northside and the Town of Dickinson. She was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and was an Assembly Member when Senator Smith secured the grant for the project.] She is quoted as stating

    “The people on the North Side of Binghamton have been without a full service grocery store for well over a decade. Through the efforts of many individuals over the years, this is now going to change. The new grocery store will be a welcome addition that will contribute to the local economy, as well as the health and well-being of the residents in the community.

    Again we do not dispute the comment, and again commend all the politicians involved in this effort. But the issuance of funds, grants that ultimately are paid for via the taxes and pockets of residents brings us to a new question. What has the money been used for, and how much is left?

    Of all those we sought to contact, we asked:

  • In 2009 a grant was provided by State Senator Malcolm Smith of $150,000, expressly for the creation of a grocery in the North Side. Where did the funds come from, what were the terms of the grant, and how much of that money is left?
  • That same year $40,000 were approved by the Broome County Legislature for the North Side grocery. Again, what were the terms of those funds, and what is left?

    We were told by Legislator Garnar that he was aware of the funds being used for “site preparation and environmental remediation”. He was not more specific as he did not have the exact legislation when he answered our question, and we do not dispute his answer. But he was also unaware of how much of the $40,000 grant remains at this time, if any. He suggested we contact the City of Binghamton. We still await their answer.

    In speaking with Assemblywoman Lupardo on this matter, she stated that the grant from Senator Smith would be from the State Senate Capitol fund for special projects. To her knowledge NONE of the funds had been used to date, though that was not an absolute statement and reports from March 2010 indicate that perhaps $29,900 were used to demolish vacant buildings on the proposed site. In addition, the Assemblywoman specualted that without Democrat control of the State Senate those funds were at risk of being removed from the North Side Grocery Project.

    The $190,000 in grants were not the only funds that were involved in the North Side Grocery Project. Reports state the initial cost of establishing the grocery would be $2 million. This was later changed to $900,000 with a move of the location for the grocer next to Big Lots in the northside. The pricetag for either location seems excessive on its face, and neither politician could clarify the cost. Since neither of the politicians, nor we, are architects or construction industry experts we will accept the cost as stated.

    Still that leaves the question if Save-A-Lot received, or will receive, tax breaks and/or other incentives from the City of Binghamton to offset the building cost? We await answers from the Mayor or his office to answer that question as well.

    All of this brings us to the present. Almost. In 2010 it was widely announced that the Save-A-Lot grocery would be opening in the Fall. To date, this is not the case. Nor is there any news of an exact date of the opening.

    We couple this latest revelation with the nature of the comments made by Councilwoman Lea Webb at the BRSC meeting (video of the speech can be seen via this link). It leaves us with a thought that the delay may hint at problems with the Project. Perhaps even a loss of the deal.

    We hope this is not correct. We want to support the grocery, and see the community prosper.

    At the same time we are troubled. There are funds that seem to be unaccounted for involved in this Project. Funds that are taxpayer provided. There has been an enourmous amount of time dedicated to this effort, with little to no results to be seen as yet. There has been a push to get recognition, and draw the attention of the highly influential Oprah Winfrey, without a clear benefit being provided. There is a mystery surrounding the loss of the last grocer, which may impact any future grocer if the issues are ones that can be eliminated or risk managed and have not been. There is the question on what deal, if any, has been made with Save-A-Lot and the short- or long-term cost to residents.

    In fact there are a lot of questions with regard to the North Side Grocery Project. We had hoped that at the time we would be writing tis article we would have answers for all of the above and more. We hoped that we could announce an opening date for the grocer and to commend all the politicians and organizations involved with this years long effort. We hoped to see a spark of innovation and investment in Binghamton, potentially signalling an end to the apparent decline in the fortunes of the city and employment.

    Instead we are left with questions, large and small. This is mitigated somewhat by the answers provided by Broome County Legislator Jason Garnar and Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, and we thank them for their responses. But the absence of comment by Mayor Ryan, and Councilwoman Webb, as well as the decision to decline any response from David Currie of the BRSC leaves us negatively curious.

    Binghamton as a whole needs to have answers to the questions that affect the community. We recognize that all the politicians noted in this article, and those involved in projects and work not mentioned, are trying their best. We acknowledge that solutions take time and run into unforeseen difficulty. But evasion, as has apparently happened, and promises of future gains do not equate to an improving community.

    We are open and request that any politician and/or organization that is or has been involved with the North Side Project contact us in regard to our questions. We are fully willing, and hopeful, to correct any portion of this article that we can gain answers to. We reaffirm our commitment to provide VERBATIM any and all responses from any politician, organization, and individual that is or has been involved with the North Side Grocery Project with regard to this article and our questions.

    We want to see a grocery in the northside of Binghamton as well as downtown. Perhaps if the questions and issues we have discussed are resolved the groceries will become a reality rather than just a multi-year grant-laden project.

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