Easier access to groceries may finally be coming for residents of the southern end of North Charleston, but it’s coming at a cost to taxpayers.
City Council’s Finance Committee unanimously agreed Thursday to have Mayor Keith Summey execute an agreement with a grocery store operator who plans to build at the former Shipwatch Square site on Rivers Avenue.
Council will consider the resolution at its next meeting, 7 p.m. Thursday.
The agreement calls for the store to be at least 30,000 square feet and open within a year. An Upstate real estate firm that's marketing the vacant 18-acre parcel has identified the grocer as Piggly Wiggly.
“A grocery store is the most important thing that those people in that community need,” Summey said.
The city is offering the grocer a $100,000-per-year incentive for five years, which Summey called a “great investment.” If the grocer closes before the end of five years, it would have to repay the money within six months.
“We ain’t gonna get no grocery store if we don’t step up to the table,” he said.
But Councilman Todd Olds worried that the city was setting a precedent.
“Half a million dollars ain’t pocket change,” he said. “The taxpayers are paying for it.”
Councilman Mike Brown pointed out the city also subsidizes the Golf Club at Westcott Plantation annually to the tune of $1.2 million, mostly for debt service and capital improvement.
Summey has been trying to entice a store to the site near the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood for at least five years, but developers have balked, saying that the area can’t support a store.
“There is still some concern by the development group on whether the grocery store is going to be fruitful,” Summey said. “I honestly have no doubt in my mind that it will be.”
At times, Summey has talked about building a city-run store as a last resort. On Thursday, he brought it up again.
“If this doesn’t work and we don’t get this grocery store, I’m going to be coming to you to run a co-op grocery store, city-owned,” he said, adding that the preference is a chain grocery store. “We want a grocery store that people can go and shop in and get the same competitive pricing they do at any other grocery store.”
The last grocery store in the area, Winn-Dixie, left in 2005 as part of the chain’s closure of all its grocery stores in South Carolina.
“I think that this store will be as successful as the Winn-Dixie was in the same shopping center, almost in the same location,” Summey said. “That Winn-Dixie did not close because it was not a store that made money.”
The area around Shipwatch Square was classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a “food desert” — a low-income area where residents have little access to healthy food and produce.
Many residents of the area are forced to take long bus rides or taxis to stores more than 5 miles away to buy groceries.
The city has spent more than $6 million to purchase and clean up the site but has struggled to find a developer.
About a year ago, when North Charleston sought out proposals from private developers, only Appian Investments responded. The Greenville-based firm plans to redevelop the tract with a grocery store, office space and multifamily residential units.
“I think a grocery store will be the first of thing that entices other development in the rest of that property,” Summey said.
Council approved a proposal last year to sell the property to Appian for $3.3 million, but the property has yet to change hands.
“If they can’t get the grocery store, I don’t want them to close,” Summey said. “That’s the primary concern, to get the grocery store. After that, they can build an office, workforce housing, whatever they want, as long as it meets the zoning.”