SCHENECTADY — A grocery store may finally be coming to the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood.
The Schenectady County Legislature’s Economic Development and Planning Committee on Tuesday approved an agreement for the option to secure and purchase 754 State St. with plans to eventually build a mid-size grocery store on the 2.13 acre property.
Lawmakers called the agreement a significant first step in addressing the issue of food insecurity and improving access to healthy foods — two issues that have long plagued the city. The full Legislature will vote to approve the agreement at its next meeting on Sept. 13.
“It really will fill a need for healthy affordable food in an area where it’s very limited right now,” said Gary Hughes, a District 2 representative who chairs the Economic Development and Planning Committee.
The property was home to a used car lot operated by the Mohawk Auto Group until closing in February, and connects Albany and State streets in the Hamilton Hill neighborhood with proximity to the Vale neighborhood and downtown area.
The property also sits on a bus line, which is key to improving access to the site, Hughes said.
Under the agreement, the county will spend $10,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to secure the right to purchase the property for the next year and a half at a price of $950,000. The county would also use ARPA funds to buy the property should it choose to execute the purchase option.
The county has also set aside $3 million in ARPA funds to help cover the cost of building the store, and is in the process of putting together a request for proposals in order to find a developer to operate the site.
Hughes said the RFP will be “fully open and transparent” to ensure any organization interested in operating a grocery store at the site can submit a proposal.
“Certainly we’re going to look for developers that are financially viable and have demonstrated some history with retail food,” he said. “It could be any number of established supermarket chains that are interested in doing it once they realize there’s an incentive that comes into play that would help them offset their operating costs.”
He noted that the county will likely own the property, but could explore transferring ownership of the site in the future once a proposal is selected.
It’s also unclear if the approximately 20,000-square-foot building that sits on the property can be redeveloped or would need to be torn down, but Hughes said the county is also looking into state grants to help offset any demolition costs.
Hughes said lawmakers have long sought ways to bring a grocer to the city, but noted a number of obstacles have stood in the way, including rising operating costs that have forced grocers to either consolidate or close entire stores. The issue, he said, is why the county has decided to allocate the funds to move the project forward.
“When the supermarkets leave, they leave behind customers and the customers are our constituents, so we felt an overall responsibility to see if there was something we could do to work on that,” he said.
Access to healthy food has long been an issue throughout Schenectady County, but is particularly acute in Schenectady, where poverty rates are high and adequate transportation can be hard to come by for some.
In 2017, the county completed the Healthy and Equitable Food Access Plan, which explored the issue of food insecurity and provided a series of recommendations on how to address the issues moving forward.
The study included focus groups and community surveys, which found that low-income residents cited a lack of reliable transportation as a barrier to accessing healthy foods, and recommended building a grocery store in underserved areas.
“Attracting new grocery stores to underserved areas is a suggested strategy for increasing access to healthy food in these communities, with greater supermarket availability associated with lower prevalence of obesity,” the study reads.
This is not the first time lawmakers have committed funds in the hopes of improving access to food.
Earlier this year, the county Legislature committed $3 million to the Electric City Co-op in order to open a storefront in the downtown area. Electric City has for years been trying to increase membership and raise funds to open a store.
The organization recently formed a partnership with the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany in an effort to accelerate the process, and is currently exploring moving into the Ortho NY building on Liberty Street, according to Hughes, who said the two markets will each serve a different need when addressing food accessibility.
“It’s our view that the two will compliment each other,” he said.
Last month, the City Council allocated $1 million in ARPA funding to four organizations — including the Schenectady Foundation, Schenectady Community Ministries, SUNY Schenectady and the Schenectady Greenmarket — to help combat food insecurity.
It’s unclear how exactly the funds will be used as the organizations wait to enter into contract agreements with the city, but Hughes said he believes the Legislature’s actions complement those of the City Council.
Council President Marion Porterfield said Tuesday that a grocery store has long been needed in the city, particularly in the Hamilton Hill and Vale neighborhoods.
“I think it’s a good idea,” she said.
Hughes said there is no set timeframe for when the State Street property will be developed but noted that the county will be working as quickly as possible to advance the project.
“We’re going to move as fast as we can responsibly,” he said. “We’re not going to wait around on this.”
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.