By John Gallagher, via Detroit Free Press
This morning’s groundbreaking of the Whole Foods grocery in Detroit’s Midtown district represented more than turning a few shovels of dirt. It also marked an opportunity to forge closer ties between a major corporation and the community it hopes to serve, Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb told community and civic leaders this morning.
Meeting with a Whole Foods community advisory panel prior to the 9:45 a.m. groundbreaking, Robb said Whole Foods hopes to nurture local food suppliers whose products will appear on Whole Foods shelves, as well as take a role in educating the community on healthy eating.
“We’re really excited to be here,” Robb said. “I promise you we’re going to be here with humility. We’re going to need your help.”
The groundbreaking, featuring Mayor Dave Bing, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and other leaders, drew more than 200 well-wishers and capped a nearly two-and-a-half-year process in which Whole Foods examined whether it should open one of its upscale groceries in a distressed urban market like Detroit. The decision marks Whole Foods’ first venture into such a market after already operating more than 300 stores in three nations, including some in Detroit’s suburbs.
Several other cities, including Chicago, have now asked Whole Foods to open stores in their communities following the Detroit example, Robb said. But he said he was happy that Detroit was first.
“The richness that we discovered here was very encouraging,” Robb said. “That’s special for me.”
And to the question of whether Whole Foods could be profitable in an urban market like Detroit, he said, “My expectation is a healthy, successful store.”
The 21,000-square-foot Whole Foods will be located on the north side of Mack between Woodward and John R. Construction will take about a year and the store should open in early 2013. The store will employ about 75 workers.
Bing called the groundbreaking a wonderful day in the city.
“Too often we focus on the negative things that are happening in our city. Today is a positive reckoning that there are people who believe in the city of Detroit and its resurgence,” Bing said.
Some of the people who put together the complex financial deal to bring Whole Foods to the city emphasized how difficult it remains to do real estate development when traditional lenders will not invest in the city. Building Whole Foods in Midtown required a layering of a half-dozen different sources of untraditional finance, including multiple tax credits.
“To do a project like this is a really complicated transaction that requires a lot of people and a lot of time and really hard work,” said Sue Mosey, president of the nonprofit group Midtown Detroit Inc., who helped bring in Whole Foods.
Peter Cummings, chairman of RAM Realty Services, the owner and developer of the Whole Foods site, noted that his firm had owned the site for 16 years before drawing a major development.
“We’ve owned it a long time, but I can safely say today it was worth the wait,” Cummings told the audience.
The Whole Foods arrival did not come without controversy. Independent grocers in Detroit have complained that major national retailers like Whole Foods and Meijer are coming thanks to generous tax breaks that aren’t available to existing grocers.
Eric Younan, a spokesman for the Detroit Independent Grocers, an affiliate of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce, said there are 83 full-service groceries in the city already. He defined “full service” as a store with at least 10,000 square feet of space and at least four departments: meat, dairy, produce and frozen foods.
“Detroit independent grocers welcome competition. We just want a level playing field,” Younan said Monday. “We’ve been committed to serving Detroit for more than 30 years. We’re loyal to the city. We just don’t feel that loyalty is being reciprocated.”
Noting that some existing local grocers have criticized the opening of a major corporate grocery chain in Midtown, Robb asked for understanding.
“Can we get past the stereotype of corporation comes to a community?” he said. “I really love this community. Can you take us at our word that that’s what we’re trying to do?”