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Neelie Carroll (left) and Lindsey Barrow, founder of Lowcountry Street Grocery, replace display tags on produce while they are parked at Meeting Street Eats in downtown Charleston on Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

While the tri-county region's rapid growth has lured a number of grocery stores near densely populated areas, some communities still lack nearby options for healthy produce.

Experts in the retail and grocery store business note several factors — population density, median household income, traffic volume — help grocery stores determine where to locate. They say the reason some municipalities have several stores within walking distance of each other while other neighborhoods struggle to attract a single store boils down to companies setting up shop where store owners are confident they'll be successful.

Three grocery stores rest within a mile's distance on U.S. Highway 17 in Mount Pleasant. The town, which boasts almost 90,000 residents and has a median household income of just above $90,000, has attracted name-brand companies like Whole Foods.

Additionally, 2018 traffic counts from the S.C. Department of Transportation show just under 50,000 cars drive by the shopping centers at the foot of the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge daily.

But in North Charleston, a city with more than 113,000 residents and median household income of less than $40,000, several communities through the city's south end fall under the U.S Department of Agriculture's designation as "food deserts," where low-income communities lack access to healthy and affordable foods.

One of these communities includes the area surrounding Shipwatch Square, a site located off U.S. 52 where less than 20,000 cars drive by the site regularly, according to 2018 state traffic data.

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Lowcountry Street Grocery, a mobile farmers market, is parked at Meeting Street Eats in downtown Charleston on Wednesday, December 4, 2019. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Efforts to attract a store to a property at the corner of Rivers and McMillan avenues have repeatedly fallen through since Winn-Dixie closed in 2005. The site is largely industrial and lacks the population density that would give business leaders the confidence to set up shop, said John Orr, a Carolina retail expert and director of retail services in the Charleston office of Lee & Associates.

Though many historic communities are near the large site, census tracts down the Charleston Neck Area boast no more than 3,000 residents, according to 2019 population census tract data provided by Lee & Associates. That changes on the peninsula, where pockets show population density between 3,000 and 5,000, and in areas east of the Cooper River, where some census tracts boast up to 27,000 residents.

“They will invest that capital where they will have the best return," Orr said.

Additionally, Orr noted that potential crime has turned one grocer away from the Shipwatch site, citing a company analysis done years ago revealing that the potential store would have lost a third of its sales due to theft.

Omar Muhammad, president for the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, dismissed that premise, citing that theft occurs everywhere.

“It underlines why low wealth, particularly minority communities, tend to have to deal with these types of stereotypes," he said.

Stores also have to consider expenses, including rising costs of construction, taxes, insurance and maintenance.

SECONDARY OR INSIDE OPTION Food Desert

The former site of Shipwatch Square on North Charleston's south end once had a grocery store. North Charleston has struggled to attract a supermarket to the area, which is considered a food desert. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Jon Owens is a vice president with C&S Wholesale Grocers, which owns the Piggly Wiggly franchise for more than 400 stores across the Southeast. He was involved with the Shipwatch site when Piggly Wiggly considered setting up shop on the property years ago. North Charleston offered incentives for the project, but Lynn Willard, who owns several Piggly Wiggly stores throughout the state, decided against opening a store on the property because the numbers didn't add up in the store's favor.

"The volume that the store would do in total sales would not be enough to overcome all the expenses in the location," Owens said.

Downtown on the peninsula, some residents on Charleston's East Side have lived in a federally-designated "food desert" for years. The Bi-Lo on Meeting Street closed its doors years ago, but a new Publix supermarket opened earlier this year at Spring Street and Lockwood Boulevard on the ground floor of the 10 WestEdge Apartments.

Companies considering opening a grocery store downtown might have to consider similar approaches, Orr said. Opening and running a grocery store — which operate under small profit margins — can be expensive downtown, where land and rent prices are rising.

“You have to have the population density and you also have to have some other income to offset the expenses to create that situation," Orr said.

What's ahead?

Many say that the Lowcountry Rapid Transit, which calls for a bus route along U.S. 52, will spark change and encourage new development.

But this raises concern for some who fear that stores will only set up shop in predominately black and low-income neighborhoods once they gentrify. 

“It reinforces the fear that community has," Muhammad said.

In the meantime, communities aren't waiting on businesses to come to their communities. Some have taken matters into their own hands by forming neighborhood stores that offer fresh produce.

On Charleston's East Side, Lowcountry Street Grocery has permanently parked its bus on the former Bi-Lo parking lot, providing up to 50 customers daily with fresh vegetables and fruits. 

Additionally, the organization has sought other avenues to address health and recently partnered with the Fetter Health Care to provide health and wellness group classes. Participants receive $20 vouchers for produce.

"It's the most exciting thing we're doing," said Lindsey Barrow Jr., who founded the organization.

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