ATLANTIC CITY — Sylvester Showell sometimes has to make three stops to get all of the groceries he needs.
Often, he leaves the city to visit a neighboring town’s supermarket.
Showell, the president of the city’s Third Ward Civic Association, said he does it all using public transportation. And it’s a hassle.
“You can only carry but so many things when you’re on public transportation, which, the majority of people in Atlantic City, that’s what they do,” said Showell, 73. “If they don’t have a car, they either walk to Renaissance (Plaza) or they take the 505 bus to Ventnor Heights.”
Showell said there were multiple grocery stores in the city when he first moved here 39 years ago. There hasn’t been a proper supermarket for 15 years, and Atlantic City has been repeatedly labeled a food desert because of it. That lack was one of the main faults listed by Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, in his 2018 report on getting the city back to financial independence.
If everything goes according to plan, though, a proposed ShopRite could ease Showell’s headaches. A number of hurdles will need to be navigated to make that a reality, though.
On Aug. 20, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority board voted to certify Village Super Market, which operates 30 ShopRites across four states, as the developer and operator of a new 40,000-square-foot grocery store at Baltic and Indiana avenues. There is no official groundbreaking date, but officials estimate the store — which will cost about $13.5 million to build — should take 13 months to build.
City officials see it as a win, even before the groundbreaking.
“To have ShopRite say it’s willing to be in the City of Atlantic City sends a deeper ripple effect than we can imagine,” said Mayor Frank Gilliam at the meeting. “It’s something the community has wanted for a long, long time. The community should have a right to have a supermarket to eat and live in dignity.”
Concerns from residents will need to be addressed to make sure the store stays in the city.
One location in a low-income area in Jersey City has rotated through multiple grocery store brands that all saw similar life cycles, said Mayor Steven Fulop. Unsupported by the city, the operators pushed the shelf lives of things like meat, eggs and produce. Customers caught on and stopped patronizing the locations, and the stores went into a “death spiral,” he said.
“I think it’s really important that the city invests its own resources out of the gate to help customers get there and shop there,” Fulop said.
In Atlantic City, reliable transportation to and from the location is chief among residents’ concerns, as many in the resort, like Showell, don’t own cars. CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty said the agency has discussed reaching out to NJ Transit to alter a bus route to go directly to the store.
According to an analysis of Census Bureau data by datausa.io, the average household in Atlantic City owns one car, compared with two cars statewide.
Beyond public transit, Showell worries the boxed-in plot could cause congestion for motorists.
“You have Ohio Avenue, which is one way. You have Indiana Avenue, which is one way. You have Baltic Avenue, which is one way leading out of town,” he said.
Safety for shoppers is another top concern for residents. Loiterers and panhandlers outside the Save-A-Lot discount store on Atlantic Avenue can leave some shoppers feeling harassed.
Residents shouldn’t look to the city to provide security at the ShopRite, said Ruan Pugh, 40, Showell’s son and vice president of the Third Ward Civic Association. The onus should be on the supermarket.
“Who wants to be bothered with that vagrancy every time you go into that store? It’s such a headache to have to deal with the riffraff and nonsense,” Pugh said. “And I know it’s in the process of being worked on, but it’s still a hassle, especially for my parents, who are much older. I don’t want them to be subjected to that.”
The last grocery store in the city closed largely due to vagrancy and theft.
“It starts with the supermarket itself,” Pugh said. “If you don’t have quality security in and around that supermarket, it’s gonna turn into a slum area.”
Doherty said ShopRite is up to the task.
“ShopRite will be responsible for providing comprehensive and complete security both in the building and on the premises,” he said. “We’ve discussed this with them. They understand that it’s important as well, and they don’t see any problems with providing a level of security that will make people feel very comfortable going into their store.”
Atlantic City isn’t the only town bringing a ShopRite to a neighborhood in need of a full-service grocery store.
Jersey City is weighing a tax abatement for a ShopRite set to open on the west side of the city. It could be worth the stability and jobs the store would bring, Fulop said.
Likewise, in Atlantic City, the supermarket could provide an economic boost. CRDA has floated the idea of leasing the land to Village Super Market for a dollar a year.
Village Super Market is considering building up at the location to accommodate a sit-down restaurant, job training site and a micro-fulfillment center that would use robotics to carry out online orders, said Walt West, director for sustainable food systems for Uplift Solutions, which consulted the city on the project. Of the roughly 125 jobs that will be created by the ShopRite’s opening, 75% will go to low or unskilled workers, CRDA Vice Chairman Richard Tolson said. And 89% of employees would be covered by unions and paid a living wage with paid vacation, sick and personal days, and health coverage.
To keep those jobs in the city, Village Supermarkets and CRDA will have to find a way to make the location profitable. An attorney representing Village Supermarkets said in August the location will lose roughly $115,000 a year.
That is among the wrinkles that need to be ironed out to keep the supermarket in Atlantic City for the long haul. Being able to get all of their groceries in one place, quickly and conveniently, would make a world of difference for residents, Pugh said.
“It would almost change the game,” he said, laughing. “We wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.”