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?
“Those questions were short-lived,” Binkowski said. “We did do a remodel and ‘starch and press’ job on the aging building, but we mostly just packed the racks with items floor to ceiling, and put as many square feet of meat and produce the coolers allowed us and floor space could handle.”
But the store was still old. And at 18,000 square feet, it was far smaller than modern groceries that range between 40,000 and 60,000 square feet.
“When you rent a space from someone else, you do inherit someone else’s dream and vision,” Binkowski said. “Without the constraints of being a tenant, we are allowed to dream about a location and building that we will now own, on land that we own, for a community that has been faithful to shop with us, and that has shared with us what their dream is.”
Shoppers have asked for a deli like those at the Edmond Uptown Market and the Buy For Less on Northwest Expressway. They want a full service bakery with cake decorating. They want sit-down areas for parents to catch their breath.
“We intend to deliver on these wishes,” Binkowski said. “This will happen in a brand new, 50,000-square-foot store built on an adjacent site that will allow us to open the new store before we close and demolish the old one. This store will have expanded deli-bakery, floral, plentiful options in produce and specialty diet offerings, like most of the other stores do.”
And in an area of town the Oklahoma City/County Health Department identified as struggling with good health, the new store also will have a space to host the chain’s “Learn with Lunch” cooking classes with corporate dietician Becky Varner.
“Food is our ministry,” Binkowski said. “Food is the place where community starts. People bond when they break bread together. We have the supreme blessing of being ‘community makers’ because community happens when food shows up. And that is our dream for this location. When we have an opportunity to deliver on what has been needed for so long, to a community that has been pretty far down on the totem pole in getting a timely facelift, we pray that we just start a new vision.”
All the tools
Pettis sees the new store as just the start of a long-overdue game change for northeast Oklahoma City. Working with O’Connor, Pettis is hoping to secure a tax increment finance district that, like those established in the Oklahoma Health Center and downtown, will spur even more redevelopment up and down NE 23.
“We’re not just talking about the possibility of having a modern full size grocery store, but also some office buildings, some educational and retail components,” Pettis said. “And it’s going to be happening right in the heart of northeast Oklahoma City.”
The next steps will, however, take longer than development of the new grocery store, which is tentatively set to be built later this year.
If the city council on Tuesday approves pursuing creation of a new tax increment finance district, O’Connor’s tasks ahead will include consulting with county, library and schools officials and creating a plan for the district to be approved by the involved taxing entities.
Creating a new Urban Renewal blight area will involve even more delicate discussions with area residents who may recall when the agency, which is now overseen by O’Connor, wiped out entire neighborhoods in northeast Oklahoma City.
Both Pettis and O’Connor agree that legacy still stings, but is no longer a reflection of the current agency which has an entirely different staff, leadership and direction.
“Urban Renewal in the past left a very bad taste in the community’s mouth,” Pettis said. “But the Urban Renewal of yesterday is not the Urban Renewal of today or the Urban Renewal of tomorrow. This will not touch residential houses. But we do need to clean up streets like 23rd to make opportunities for job creation and retail development.”
O’Connor promised a blight declaration will only follow extensive studies and community participation.
“This area is important enough to the community that we need to go into it with all the tools we have available,” O’Connor said. “We really don’t have a lot of tools to use in Oklahoma. TIF (tax increment financing) is a powerful tool. The Urban Renewal Authority does have powers that even the City of Oklahoma City doesn’t have. So we want to make sure we’re armed and ready to go to do everything we can to move northeast Oklahoma City forward.”
Both Binkowski and Pettis say the new store and creation of the tax increment finance district will send a powerful message to other retailers and employers that opportunities await along NE 23.
“The district demarcation is just a tool that the City of Oklahoma City can use to invite development and brand new vision,” Binkowski said. “It is the meaning of the district that becomes the evidence. That evidence is that had by city leaders and neighborhoods. That belief is that, ‘You are worthy,’ and ‘We believe in the northeast entrepreneurship ability, and we are going to show it to you in a real, tangible way.’ If that happens, the message will be loud and clear.”
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