A $20 million redevelopment anchored by the first new grocery in decades for northeast Oklahoma City is set to be started later this year as Oklahoma City prepares for an aggressive makeover of the NE 23 corridor.
Ward 7 Councilman John Pettis on Tuesday is set to request creation of a tax increment finance district for NE 23 between Lincoln Boulevard and Interstate 35, along with a potential new Urban Renewal declaration, aimed to ensure investment doesn’t stop with a new shopping center at NE 23 and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
The new store will be built and operated by the owners of Buy For Less, which has leased a 52-year-old building at 2001 NE 23 for the past three years after buying the existing grocery from the property owner, Grady Delling.
Susan Binkowski, who runs the chain’s property division, Esperanza Real Estate, is promising a new, 50,000-square-foot store that will be as customized to its community as Uptown Market is to Edmond and the Super Mercado stores are to the Hispanic community in south Oklahoma City.
“This is history,” Pettis said in an exclusive interview with The Oklahoman. “This is absolutely history. This shows development can happen within the inner-city of Oklahoma City.”
Pettis, a life-long northeast Oklahoma City resident, grew up taking a trip with his family to Midwest City to get groceries because options near his own neighborhood were limited to the aging, 18,000-square-foot grocery at NE 23 and Martin Luther King (formerly known as Hometown Market) or an even smaller convenience store sized grocery (10,000 square feet), Otwells Food Store, 1149 NE 23.
The United States Department of Agriculture describes such areas as “food deserts,” and it estimates 23.5 million people across the country have inadequate access to fresh produce, meat, dairy and other staples others take for granted.
Pettis credits predecessor Willa Johnson, now a county commissioner, with first trying to tackle the problem 20 years ago.
“In 1993 she was pushing for a full service grocery store and retail development,” Pettis said. “She tried and tried and tried. But no major grocer would step up to the plate.”
Johnson, however, did secure $2.5 million in city bond funding, with another $500,000 secured by then Rep. Ernest Istook, for an overhaul of the crumbling NE 23 corridor. The reconstruction provided the northeast community’s busiest street with new sewers, sidewalks, lighting and intersections.
Johnson’s tenure also saw some retail re-investment at NE 23 and Martin Luther King, including a CVS Drug Store. A study commissioned by the planning department in 2005, meanwhile, confirmed suspicions among many that NE 23 and Martin Luther King was the right spot for a grocery store — but that the existing retailers were not meeting the community’s needs.
The 2005 study by RW Ventures and the Kilduff Company reported the intersection was traveled by more than 31,000 vehicles a day and that 9,476 people lived within a one-mile radius. The study also showed 13,000 people worked in the nearby Oklahoma Health Center and Capitol complex and another 3,000 students were attending the health center’s medical school.
The consultants reported demand in northeast Oklahoma City retail trade area, which they defined as bordered by Interstates 44, 235 and 35, exceeded supply by $13 million, with demand in 2005 totaling $50.8 million and supply totaling $37.5 million.
Northeast Oklahoma City didn’t just need a new grocery, the consultants said, but also retailers that sold building materials, electronics, appliances and general merchandise.
Cathy O’Connor, president of The Alliance for Economic Development of Oklahoma City and previously an assistant city manager, has been part of the pursuit of a northeast Oklahoma City grocery since the release of the 2005 study. The need, she said, was there, but no grocers were willing to take the risk of being first.
“It takes the private sector to take the risk and do the development,” O’Connor said. “So this is huge that Buy For Less is committed to northeast Oklahoma City to provide them with food and this development. We have health challenges and access to food challenges in northeast Oklahoma City. Providing a grocery in a setting that people can get to easily is very important and it’s been a priority of mine for a long time.”
Susan Binkowski is passionate as she shares the history of how she and her husband Hank built their company from one store at Hefner Road and Pennsylvania Avenueinto a chain of 14 groceries. And she believes building a new store at NE 23 and Martin Luther King, one that has yet to be named, is the right next move.
“We purchased the business at 23rd and Martin Luther King three years ago,” Binkowski said. “It had always been a gentlemen’s agreement that Mr. Delling and his son-in-law, Danny Boyles, would sell us the building when it was appropriate. That time came around November of 2013.”
The Binkowskis faced some short-term skepticism when they first bought the operation: how would they do business and engage with their customers? Would they carry the items the community most wanted for their cupboards and families?
It takes the private sector to take the risk and do the development,” O’Connor said. “So this is huge that Buy For Less is committed to northeast Oklahoma City to provide them with food and this development.”
President of The Alliance