A group working toward establishing a grocery store on Billings’ South Side met Thursday morning to talk about the next step in the process — conducting a market analysis of possible locations and what kind of store might work best.
The analysis would also include five years of financial projections, including start-up costs, and a look at what other businesses might possibly co-locate with a new grocery store.
The South Side has not had a full-service grocery story since an IGA store on State Avenue closed in 2013.
The meeting was held at RiverStone Health, which is a sponsor, with St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic, of Healthy By Design, whose broad goal is to improve the quality of life for people in Yellowstone County.
As one part of that larger initiative, community partners and South Side residents, during a year-long planning process that ran through last July, came up with a Healthy Neighborhood Plan, which identified two major goals: increasing access to healthful, affordable food, and building community pride through neighborhood revitalization.
After the IGA closed five years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture deemed all three South Side U.S. Census tracts “food deserts” — areas lacking easy access to fresh, healthy and affordable food.
At the meeting on Thursday, RiverStone representatives met with people from Community Leadership and Development Inc. and two economic development agencies, Beartooth RC&D and Big Sky Economic Development, to talk about the market analysis and related topics.
CLDI is involved in multiple revitalization projects on the South Side, including one of its biggest projects to date, converting an old labor temple on First Avenue South into office space for CLDI, a community gathering spot and affordable apartments.
Eric Basye, the organization’s director, said at the meeting that CLDI had considered putting some kind of small grocery component into the building, but in the end decided it didn’t have enough space to squeeze one in. He did say that CLDI might be interested in buying and developing an older building and then leasing or selling that to a grocery store operator.
Melissa Hendrickson, a RiverStone employee who helped facilitate the meeting, acknowledged that RiverStone’s emphasis is on health, not business, which is why they were soliciting advice from economic development people and private-sector businesses.
“We’d love to know, are we on the right track?” she asked.
Hendrickson said the group that has been working to build up the South Side obtained a $75,000, one-year planning grant from the Kresge Foundation to work on the Healthy Neighborhood Plan. Since last fall, they have been working under a second, two-year Kresge grant of $200,000 to develop some of their ideas.
Besides the grocery story analysis, the current funding is going to be used for community gardening projects and planning, and efforts to incorporate public art and welcoming and way-finding signs in the neighborhood.
The focus of the grant is a triangle of the South Side bounded by South 27th Street, First Avenue South and State Avenue, though a grocery store anywhere in that area would also serve other residents of the South Side as well.
Because the Kresge grant has to fund so many projects, Hendrickson said, they have designated only $5,000 toward the market analysis, which might cost nearly $40,000.
“This limited funding also creates an opportunity to encourage other agencies or groups to match funds to make this a collective reality for the community,” she said.
Other possible finding options identified at the meeting included tax-increment financing through the South Billings Urban Renewal District or funding through the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund.
Sue Taylor, economic development director for the Beartooth RC&D, said a short-term goal, or a supplement to a brick-and-mortar grocery store, might be a mobile grocery store. She said she heard of a foundation that uses old school buses for that purpose.
“I wondered, would that be a nice interim step?” she asked.
Hendrickson said the idea, in fact, is one that “keeps popping up” in discussions about dealing with the food desert on the South Side.
She said people working on the grocery store idea have also been working with the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, which is hoping to create a nonprofit “food hub” that would manage the collection, processing, marketing and distribution of food products from area farmers, ranchers, gardeners and other producers.
It might be possible to put a grocery store and a food hub in the same building, she said.