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Market Share: Can Shaw’s Satisfy Burlington’s Craving for a Downtown Grocery Store? 

At 6 p.m. on June 6, cashiers at the Cherry Street Price Chopper will ring up their final bags of dog food and chips, the automatic doors will swing shut for good, and, for the first time in memory, downtown Burlington will be without a grocery store.

The handwriting has been on the wall for years. For the last 10 at least, city officials have been trying to lure another food retailer to the city’s inner core. But as these efforts have failed, more and more grocery goliaths — each one larger than the last —- have been struggling for supremacy on the outskirts of town.

Early this summer, developer David Hauke will hold a press conference at which he may announce the long-awaited expansion of the North Avenue Grand Union. Meanwhile, Price Chopper will open the largest supermarket in the state on Shelburne Road. And Shaw’s will likely embark on the permitting process for a major new store near the Pine Street Barge Canal site. This last development is the most controversial. In fact, many fear that if a Shaw’s does open there, the city can kiss good-bye its last chance of replacing the downtown grocery store.

As Price Chopper Promotions Manager Barbara Page tells it, the chain decided to close its Cherry Street outlet because it’s too small and too expensive to run. These same factors have kept other chains out of downtown, as well. According to Bernie Rogan of Shaw’s, who helped pitch the Pine Street plan in Burlington last month, a “modern” store — one that provides the goods and services today’s supermarket customer expects while delivering the profits today’s supermarket companies demand — requires a minimum of six acres. But sites that size just don’t exist downtown.

Why must supermarkets be so super? Capitalism 101 says it’s because big fish eat little fish. No one wants to be the smallest store on the block. Food Retailing 101 adds that in today’s business, big fish counters, bakeries, delis and all those other space-gobbling extras are where the real profits lie. It takes a mess of yuppies shelling out big bucks for organic, vine-ripe tomatoes in January to subsidize the generic canned varieties consumed by less prosperous shoppers.

The new Shelburne Road Price Chopper will cover 73,000 square feet — nearly twice the size of its current outlet, also on Shelburne Road, and seven times the size of the Cherry Street store. The new outlet will employ 400 — 10 times the Cherry Street workforce. And the new store will feature a plethora of profitable peripherals, including a flower and gourmet chocolate department, an international cheese shop, fresh bagels, cappuccino, pizza, roast chicken, and other ready-made foods, and an area to eat them in.

Rogan stresses the wide range of products the proposed Shaw’s would stock. He justifies this variety — for his politically correct Burlington audience — with a rainbow-quilt spin. In shopping days of old, he says, a food store would serve a particular ethnic community. But communities have become more diverse, and people have grown more adventurous about preparing dishes from each others’ traditions. Rogan’s favorite example is rice. “In the past, there was white or brown rice,” he points out. Today, discriminating cooks look for Indian Basmati, Italian Aroborio, Indonesian Jasmine, Japanese short grain and more. Fair enough. But how, exactly, does this ethnic omnivorousness translate into the need for 87 varieties of fortified breakfast cereal, 45 types of flavored seltzer and block-long displays of paper towels?

Picky questions like this are beside the point, however, when you’re putting on the big push for a major new construction at a problematic site. And that’s just what Shaw’s is up to.

Developer Gene Beaudoin, who worked as a Burlington real estate agent and stockbroker until the late 1970s, is the Shaw’s project front man. A convincing arguer, he’s been holding intimate sessions to woo project neighbors and community leaders. Not that Beaudoin calls it wooing. His job, he says, is to make sure the appropriate parties “understand the project and all its merits,” and to fine-tune the proposal to meet community needs.

Beaudoin represents the plan as having wide-based support. A poll taken for Shaw’s by Osborne Associates in February concluded that nearly 70 percent of city residents had a positive impression of the Shaw’s corporation, and close to 90 percent felt a Pine Street store was “critical” or “important” to the city. Residents of Ward 5, where the store would be located, were also favorably disposed. But nearly 13 percent —- almost twice as many as in the city as a whole — thought the store would be “bad” or a “disaster” for Burlington.

Roxanne Leopold, director of the King Street Youth Center, is a proponent. “My initial reaction was very positive. The people who live in the South End, the King Street neighborhood and Central downtown who don’t have transportation have to shop at local stores where prices are higher, and they don’t have a lot of variety of food,” she says. “The addition of any new supermarket would be positive.”

Mary Lyons, a resident of a senior housing building on College Street, also supports the plan. Sixty people live in her apartment house, she says, but only 14 have cars. Close proximity to groceries is a must. “They’re talking about running a shuttle and a delivery service,” she says. “Downtown would be my first choice, but my second choice would be Shaw’s.”

Not everyone is convinced, however. “I don’t hear a groundswell of support for this project,” says Mayor Peter Clavelle. Though he has not actively opposed the plan — and he’s careful to note that he bears no ill will against Shaw’s per se — Clavelle does have serious misgivings about the site. “The Pine Street location does not satisfy the need for a downtown supermarket,” the mayor states. “In fact, in the long term, it could undermine our efforts to bring a supermarket downtown.”

In the last few weeks, over a hundred neighbors have signed petitions objecting to a supermarket on Pine Street. The petitioners oppose the project on several grounds. The location’s proximity to the Barge Canal Superfund site raises environmental worries for Caroline Bates, who lives a few blocks from the proposed store.

“In today’s urban store settings,” Rogan responds, “the ideal location may well have been a derelict site with brown field or Superfund status.”

Traffic is also a major concern. Beaudoin promises that extra turning lanes and synchronized traffic signals — all courtesy of Shaw’s — will alleviate any problems. “One of the hard things for a lay person to explain is that were going to add traffic on Pine Street, but traffic will actually flow better after the store is open,” Beaudoin predicts. Burlington transportation planner Dan Bradley points out that, with or without a Shaw’s, Pine Street traffic flow will likely improve with the Southern Connector, which is currently scheduled for construction in 2001.

Others question the merits of using the Pine Street parcel — one of the city’s last remaining industrial sites — for retail. “I don’t see this adding any value to our city at all,” says Paul Lafayette, a former city councilor from Ward 5. “It would be the worst possible use of the land. I’d much rather see 30 small incubator companies that pay better wages and provide benefits. A project like this one only benefits one or two people — the owners.”

Once they begin the formal permitting process, the first hurdle Shaw's will face is Burlington’s zoning ordinance. The proposed site lies within an “enterprise district,” where manufacturing, distribution and auxiliary uses, such as restaurants, are allowed — but not a supermarket, says Assistant Planning Director Ken Lerner. “It’s not a permitted use. We don’t think it’s appropriate in an enterprise zone, nor at that location.”

Pine Street’s current zoning is designed to nurture incubator businesses. Champlain Chocolates and Magic Hat both started out here, and the area’s converted warehouse spaces support a lively arts scene.

Michael Monte, director of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office from 1989 to 1992 and another former Ward 5 City Councilor, explains that the area’s enterprise district designation protects these low-capital businesses from the higher rents the properties could fetch if retail were allowed there. “This is our Soho,” Monte says. “Not to continue to have that kind of place would be a real big loss for the city. I don’t want [Pine Street] to be another Shelburne Road. If Shaw’s were permitted to build on the proposed site, he warns, “it could open the area for more retail development and suck the vitality out of the street.”

Beaudoin disagrees with Lerner’s reading of the zoning ordinance. “Retail is a permitted use,” the developer argues. “Whether or not a supermarket is a permitted use is confusing in the ordinance. It’s open to interpretation.” If the Planning Commission rules against Beaudoin, the question will likely wind up in the courts. The Commission may also decide to reconsider the ordinance — thing the petitioners hope will not happen.

Steven Conant, owner of Conant Custom Brass and a member of the Pine Street Arts and Business Association, shares Monte’s concern. Though he describes himself as “undecided,” Conant calls the project “the equivalent of a big box plopped down in the middle of one of Burlington’s most interesting and diversified neighborhoods. The city needs the tax revenue in a big way, and there isn’t much more in the city that can be developed,” Conant observes, “but I don’t think this is appropriate development.”

Beaudoin counters that the parcel in question is unsuitable for industrial use from an engineering standpoint. “It can’t support light manufacturing, warehousing or industrial. So in terms of an enterprise zone, it’s useless.”

The most significant objection to the proposed Shaw’s is its location. The Pine Street site is not downtown, opponents argue, and no number of shuttle buses and delivery services will ever make up for that fact. What’s more, they say, the proposed site is close enough to downtown to draw off enough customers to make a true city-center store economically impossible.

“We don’t need another enormous supermarket at that end of town,” suggests Albert Dipietro, a building contractor who lives on Shelburne Road. “I’m basically a capitalist, but why can’t they put it downtown?”

Melinda Moulton, a redeveloper with the Main Street Landing Company, would also prefer a downtown venue. But, she reasons, better to put a supermarket near downtown than out in the suburbs. “I advocate for development in growth centers,” she declares. “I consider Pine Street part of the city center.” What’s more, Moulton worries, “If they give up this opportunity to get a market downtown and then we don’t get one in the city center, are we throwing out the baby with the bath water?” Leopold sees little hope of a market ever coming downtown. “If it were such a fabulous idea to have one downtown, there would be interest expressed,” she submits.

But others still believe that a downtown grocery store is feasible — as long as Shaw’s doesn’t preempt it. One solution might be a multilevel supermarket, a concept that works in Great Britain and seems to be catching on in this country. Planning Commissioner Wayne Senville has heard that the approach is working in Chicago. And this week, the Denver Post reported that Safeway is building a two-story store in that city. By locating backroom functions in the basement, the Post says, the store will fit 50,000 square feet of supermarket — about the size of the proposed Shaw’s — into a 35,500-square-foot area.

Another approach might be to find a local alternative to the national supermarket chains. The idea of a year-round public market has been gaining momentum for some time. The Burlington Community Land Trust’s Amy Demetrowitz is staffing the project. Recent consumer and vendor studies have shown the downtown Burlington area could support a 20,000-square-foot market with 18 to 20 vendors selling fresh foods and locally produced crafts, she says. Demetrowitz cautions, however, that such an outlet wouldn’t entirely fill the Cherry Street Price Chopper niche. “People will still need a place for Brillo pads and toilet paper,” she points out.

Also being explored is a downtown satellite outlet, or complete relocation, of the Onion River Co-op. Shawn Dean, who leaves the post of manager at the end of the month, says that several potential sites are being considered. The co-op and the public market have also recently begun to discuss the possibility of sharing a location.

Meanwhile, the Clavelle administration is working with Shaw’s and Price Chopper to provide free, convenient public transportation to the chains’ Colchester and Shelburne Road stores after the Cherry Street outlet shuts down. More importantly, the city continues to pursue potential downtown food retailers. “We can offer a very creative financing package, public land and technical assistance,” the mayor promises.

These enticements haven’t done the trick in the past. But that was before Price Chopper closed. After June 6, downtown might begin to look a little more appetizing. “We haven’t had the experience yet of not having a supermarket in downtown,” Monte observes. “Until we live without it for awhile, we won’t know the potential.”

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