- Associated Press - Monday, July 20, 2020

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Gary Williams - the Rev. Gary Williams, in actual fact - has no trouble envisioning the transition he hopes will soon take place inside a dimly lit, 8,700-square foot storefront.

“In this area, we’ll have a deli with made to order sandwiches,” he said, pointing toward a space near the front. “Meat counters along that wall. And a loading area there in the back.”

He knows the layout by heart. He and the Rev. Willard Bass Jr., a co-founder of the nonprofit SHARE Cooperative, have been planning for years the Harvest Market, a retail grocery in the West Salem Shopping Center.

They’ve jawboned, hustled and clawed to build a network of owner/members, community support and pledges for financial backing to attack a pressing problem - access to fresh, healthy products in a city plagued with food deserts.

The dominoes are lined up and ready to fall. But before they tumble, backers need local government to follow-through with a public investment.



“We’re coming in with a solution,” Green said. “We’re not coming in with a problem asking somebody else to fix it. We’re frustrated. We’ve been laboring for about five years to create a solution to food insecurity.”

METHODICAL PLANNING

Without specific directions, it’d be easy to miss SHARE’s office tucked behind the Great Wall Chinese restaurant off Academy Street.

And that’s fine with Williams, Bass and other supporters. They’d prefer for the large storefront around the corner to be the focal point of their efforts.

“The food market will be right in the middle of a gateway to the city,” Bass said. “All the traffic that comes through here on Peters Creek Parkway, the stadium up the hill.

“Right now we have an anchor store sitting empty in this shopping center and we can fix that.”

The Harvest Market plan has its roots in a long-standing anti-racism project Bass guided for years. The idea, he said, evolved from disgraceful reports that listed Winston-Salem as one of the worst U.S. cities for food insecurity.

“We were the fifth largest (food deserts) in the nation,” Bass said. “Three years ago we had 11 food deserts mapped out. Now we have 22. It just got worse and worse.”

(A food desert, loosely defined, is a neighborhood far removed from groceries with fresh produce and nutritious ingredients for meals and a lack of reliable transportation to get to one. Cigarettes, sugary drinks and cheap beer are plentiful; apples and lettuce not so much.)

One way - the most direct - to help is to open up access. It’s a simple concept: Feed people, fill their stomachs and take away a major daily concern. Doing so frees up time and energy to tackle other issues.

Once Williams and Bass zeroed in on hunger, they set to work recruiting volunteers and small individual investors. $100 makes you a member owner with access to nutrition seminars - and a share in the co-op market. Nearly 400 members have signed up already.

They drew up blueprints and methodically set about lining up grants, loans and pledges from foundations, bank community investment funds and charitable organizations that would cover half of the estimated $2.3 million price tag.

At the same time, they set about setting up a network of local growers and producers to provide staples such as meat, dairy and baked goods, much of it organic and sustainably farmed. SHARE also identified local contractors to do the construction work.

“We’ve been very deliberate in putting all this together,” Williams said. “It’s economic development, investing in jobs and getting good food to people.”

SHOVEL-READY CHANGE

The plan proceeded on schedule through the fall of 2019. Organizers worked with the city and Academy Inc., the owners of the shopping center, to get access to a program called Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas (RUCA).

Some $300,000 was allocated for sidewalks and parking lot improvements at the shopping center. The work got done, and looks good.

An additional $330,000 was allocated to Academy Inc. for upfitting space for the Harvest Market, which city officials said in October would be paid out after construction documents were approved and work competitively bid. A similar amount could come from the county.

All signs pointed toward the market opening in spring. “Then COVID hit,” Williams said.

Tax collection and local government revenue streams slowed to a trickle. Budgets needed re-tooling and priorities had to be re-ordered. Some projects had to be delayed or put on indefinite hold.

It’s not difficult to imagine that inspections, permitting and bidding - already an arduous process - would slow down, too.

“Academy Inc. is the borrower, and SHARE is not obligated for the repayment of RUCA funds,” wrote Ken Millett, the city’s director of business inclusion and advancement. “At this point, no funds have been dispersed.”

Millett also noted that SHARE has applied for an additional $100,000 through the City’s Small Business Loan Program. A loan committee is reviewing the request and seeking more details on the project.

“We get that, we really do,” Williams said.

Still, the wait has become a source of frustration. If they can’t get access to RUCA money - and soon - pledges from foundations, nonprofits and other charitable organizations may dry up, too.

The first domino - public dollars - must fall before others follow suit.

“Without everybody joining, the party is in danger,” Williams said. “It feels kind of unfair.”

Bass agreed, and linked the push for a food co-op to the current climate.

“The connection, as I see it, is with all the civil unrest and talk about the demand for change,” he said. “What better change can we make right now than improving access to food?”

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