KC Council provides needed boost to East Side grocery store that can’t afford to fail

A tale of two grocery stores: The difference in items offered east of Troost vs. Westport may surprise you (or not)

The Star's Aaron Randle looks at what two Kansas City grocery stores - Marsh's Sun Fresh in Westport and Blue Parkway Sun Fresh east of Troost Avenue - offer shoppers.
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The Star's Aaron Randle looks at what two Kansas City grocery stores - Marsh's Sun Fresh in Westport and Blue Parkway Sun Fresh east of Troost Avenue - offer shoppers.

The Kansas City Council has wisely approved spending $375,000 to help the year-old city-owned Sun Fresh supermarket in the Linwood Shopping Center stay afloat. It’s a needed boost in a neighborhood that could use one.

Kansas City’s East Side has long struggled with economic development. In an effort to provide a shot of adrenaline to the area, the city invested $17 million to rehab the Linwood Shopping Center, where Sun Fresh is now the anchor, at 31st Street and Prospect Avenue.

Fortunately, city officials understand that the store — and the shopping center — must succeed.

“We knew going in that it would be a challenge for the businesses to be successful,” said Assistant City Manager John Wood, director of the city’s neighborhoods and housing services department. “But, this is a long-term project. We knew we had to take a chance. This is what the community wanted.”

During its first year in operation, Sun Fresh has faced a long list of challenges.

Last year, a man and a teen girl were injured during a shootout inside the store. Operators now are spending more on security, a growing expense that has added to financial struggles.

Sun Fresh makes enough money to pay employees and vendors and keep fresh produce in stock. But thefts have plagued the store. A lack of effective marketing also has been a hindrance.

The dwindling population in the neighborhood, which has lost a large number of homeowners over time, has limited the store’s potential customer base.

The City Council has agreed to provide store operator Lipari Brothers Inc. with $250,000 for a line of credit and $125,000 for marketing and maintenance costs.

Critics say that both the initial investment and recent payment were ill-advised. Regardless of income, people don’t necessarily shop for groceries at the stores closest to them, they say. Store operators can’t keep counting on taxpayer money, some have argued.

The naysayers are correct that Kansas City is not a grocery store operator. But the city addressed a critical community need when this dormant site was revitalized, bringing a desperately needed grocery store to a neighborhood that would continue to decline without one. This is exactly the type of project that tax incentives should be used for — not the downtown office towers and high-end hotels pushed by well-connected developers and too often favored by the City Council.

“The store is a city asset and a community asset.” said outgoing City Councilman Jermaine Reed, who for years championed the idea of a grocery store in the blighted strip mall. “We have to do everything we can to sustain it. We can’t afford to see this fail.”

Reed is right. Failure is not an option. The center has only been open a year, and patience will be required.

“We have a long-term commitment to make it happen,” Reed said.

Wood, the assistant city manager and director who helped oversee the development, is hopeful the city’s still-unfunded five-year housing plan will eventually help the neighborhood grow its population.

“The community has embraced the grocery store,” he said. “But you need people to shop to make the store successful.”

Building a new, full-service grocery store in the heart of Kansas City’s East Side was always going to be a steep challenge. And there are limits to how much the city should invest in this project.

But Sun Fresh must be given every opportunity to succeed. The vitality of this neighborhood depends on it.