Opening a Produce Market in a Food Desert

Produce Marketplace Clairton Banner with Fruits and vegetables

Clairton, Pennsylvania is home to less than 7,000 residents. It is probably best known for being the home of the Clairton Coke Works and was once known as the Coke Capital of the World. It is also known for being the home of the Clairton Bears, the local high school football, which had a 66 game winning streak that spanned 2009 to 2013.

Clairton is one of the Monongahela river towns where the decline of the steel industry hit hard. Tucked onto two hilltops that overlook the river, train tracks, and the coke works, Clairton has seen more than its fair share of losses. More than a decade ago, the last grocery store in town closed.

Now, there is positive momentum. Local residents, working through two committees: The Healthy Food, Social, and Human Services Committee and the Neighborhood Partnership Program Committee guided the development phase and ensured engagement by the residents of Clairton. The effort to get to opening day resulted from the efforts of two nonprofits, Economic Development South and Just Harvest. Funding for the store was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Neighborhood Assistance Program (funded by BNY Mellon and Highmark), and Bridgeway Capital.

Fourth Economy and Palo Alto Partners were engaged by Just Harvest to assess the financial viability of the fresh foods market planned by Economic Development South. We conducted a needs assessment to identify the areas of highest need in Clairton, combined with an opportunity assessment to identify the areas that would be most accessible to residents. We also conducted an evaluation of local expenditures and competing stores and to assess potential store locations in Clairton. Surveys of residents provided critical insights into what factors would make the store successful. The study estimated the potential sales that could be captured for different offerings. Finally, the study integrated all of these analyses into a business plan and operational model.

The results of our analysis demonstrated that such a store would have a narrow path to sustainable break-even operations. Every scenario required some level of subsidy to overcome early operating losses. As a consulting team, we were downcast that we were not creative enough to find a sustainable, break-even solution. We were dreading when it came time to present the results to our project partners at Economic Development South and Just Harvest.

When we got to final numbers on the cash flow and the break-even projections, we expected to hear something like, “Well, thanks for trying.” We got a very different response instead. Greg Jones of Economic Development South was ecstatic — the numbers were much better than he expected. “We can make this work. This is less than it costs to educate people about food deserts and the lack of fresh produce. If we can actually provide fresh foods at this cost, this is a no-brainer!”

With the opening of Produce Marketplace, at 519 St. Clair Avenue, residents of Clairton will have access to affordable fresh foods all year round. It has been great to see this project come to life. It will be two or three years before we know that the store is sustainable, but the level of community engagement and interest to date provides a good leading indicator of the store’s viability.

Invisible Drivers of Displacement

One of the best things about our work is the opportunity to travel and work alongside interesting and inspiring people. Back in 2015, one of those people was Eric Shields, who was working with the Indiana Economic Development  Corporation. While we collaborated on the Indiana Regional Cities Initiative, we started discussing the many ways that state and local decisions can influence quality of place, a key driver for economic success and a guiding principle for the program.

A few weeks ago Shields published a thoughtful consideration of public-sector roles and responsibilities in neighborhood change, in which he stresses that the role of subsidies, their intended and unintended consequences, ways to agree on objectives and measure success, and accountability and transparency must all be grappled with before they are used to preserve housing affordability for homeowners in Indiana.

Shields shared these thoughts in response to a proposal from Indiana State Representative Cherrish Pryor to provide property tax breaks to homeowners to balance reinvestment and affordability concerns.

Key questions for the public sector

The article, called Strong Neighborhoods Are Vital to Economic Success, poses important questions to the public sector. How can state and local government best balance market forces and residents? When are state or local governments best-suited to intervene?  Should property owners be required to return subsidies when they sell their homes? What other factors, such as the type of development, contribute to displacement?

The evidence reveals unseen drivers of displacement

This last question is one that I would like to focus on. Shields rightly points out that if subsidies are provided to homeowners, but new development does not include a mix of housing options, then “displacement is inevitable over the long term.”

A key question, then, is what drives resident displacement? From there, both state and local interventions can be developed.  Property tax abatement programs are based on the accurate assessment that property tax increases are a burden on existing residents, especially lower-income residents. Based on what we know about residential displacement, some other drivers to target could be:

1. Lower-income renter churn. In addition to longtime homeowners, renters are of course a community of concern with regard to displacement. One  primary driver of renter displacement is beyond price increases and stems from a deeper housing stability pattern: lower-income renters tend to move more often than middle- and higher-income renters for a variety of reasons.

The problem for lower-income renters arises when, at this “normal” churn rate, they struggle to find another unit to move into within the same  neighborhood. Therefore, programs designed to keep renters in their homes may miss the mark because lower-income renters face pressures beyond affordability that cause them to move around. Instead, programs that aim to preserve the number of units available at an appropriate price point within the same neighborhood, and perhaps marketed to neighborhood residents first, could help address this issue.

2. Changing business types. Displacement is caused not only by cost pressures, but also by neighborhood changes that alienate existing residents, called cultural displacement. Cultural displacement can happen in places experiencing racial and ethnic demographic changes, but can also happen in ethnically homogenous areas. The common thread defining cultural displacement is that the businesses that arise in changing neighborhoods to not feel welcoming or relatable to existing residents.

A classic form of cultural displacement occurs when a main street is suddenly awash in hip coffee shops, artsy boutiques, and quirky restaurants. Even if existing residents can afford to shop in these places, they are unlikely to see them as neighborhood-serving businesses. The policy question here lies in what kinds of businesses receive tax abatements, zoning variances, or other incentives, and how a City balances business attraction and retention strategies.

3. Crime rate changes. A recent study of decades of household moving and city crime rate patterns revealed that high-income and college-educated households are more likely to move to central city neighborhoods when those neighborhoods experience a three-year reduction in violent crime, while lower-income households and those without college degrees do not demonstrate the same phenomenon.

Because high-income and college-educated households are more willing  move to lower-income and majority minority neighborhoods following a reduction in crime,  these households would drive displacement even at normal household turnover rates because they would gradually make up a larger portion of demand for housing in the area. The result would be a neighborhood that has changed in its makeup, but not necessarily due to affordability challenges (although these can certainly happen at the same time). The policy implication here is to target displacement interventions to central city neighborhoods when they approach three years in crime rate reductions.

Neighborhood change and displacement are complex issues that deserve both an evidence-based approach to policy and an ability to implement new programs quickly. While examining the evidence is crucial, displacement is happening always and everywhere, and attempting to keep people in their homes and neighborhoods should always come first.