State to spend $550K on Flint grocery store upgrades

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Michigan will help pump $550,000 into four grocery stores on the north side of Flint to boost nutritional access and mitigate the effects of lead contamination resulting from the city’s ongoing water contamination crisis.

The Michigan Strategic Fund Board on Tuesday approved a grant request from the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, which plans to raise another $550,000 in private donations for its $1.1 million “grocer improvement program.”

The chamber is planning to facilitate upgrades at four north-side grocers operating in high-poverty areas sometimes referred to as “food deserts.” Hutchinson Food & Drug, Landmark Foods, The Local Grocer, and Mr. B’s Foodland are each expected to qualify.

Flint has been without a major national grocer since 2014, when Kroger closed a store on Pierson Road.

Residents have long identified the need for more and better grocery options in the city, said chamber vice president of economic development Janice Karcher, but “it became very real” because of the water crisis. Experts say proper nutrition can help minimize the effects of lead exposure.

“We feel a sense of urgency because we think this is one of the quickest ways that folks in the neighborhood can be assisted and that their lives can be improved through improving access to healthy foods,” Karcher said.

The chamber anticipates it will cost roughly $1.1 million for planned improvements at the four stores, including expansions, storefront reconstructions, equipment upgrades, aisle reconfigurations, lighting and more.

Stores that apply for and receive funding will be required to provide before and after photos, host site visits and submit a grant report including receipts for all expenses.

The grocery store improvement plan could be a “game changer” for Flint, said City Administrator Sylvester Jones, who grew up on the city’s north side.

“The grocers that would really benefit from this, I have first-hand knowledge of them and believe that this is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s really moving us in the right direction to meet the needs of children and families on the north side of Flint.”

Mayor Karen Weaver also praised the strategic fund vote, calling it “an important step toward making groceries more accessible” to north side residents.

The Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, with support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, earlier this year conducted a feasibility study to help determine whether the city could sustain additional grocers.

The Flint Economic Recovery Task Force this month released a larger grocery plan calling for development of two new smaller stores in other parts of the city, in addition to the four existing stores marked for improvements.

The chamber had anticipated trying to recruit a national retailer but determined that was not the best solution, “both because of some sustainably concerns as well as the effect that could have on some of the neighborhood-based grocers who have been there for 30, 40 years,” Karcher said.

The chamber has “received interest and commitments” from local foundations to match the state funding, she told the board. Officials have also already discussed planned improvements with the four stores that will qualify for the program.

“These grocers have stood by Flint and its residents,” Weaver said in a statement, “and we’re thrilled that they will be supported in their efforts to improve their offerings in the year ahead.”