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‘Seedling’ to sprout in Highland Square

4/7/2011 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

City chooses organic grocer Mustard Seed Market for eventual new store

While construction of the proposed Mustard Seed Market most likely would not be completed until 2012, the store might begin operations sooner by selling products from the currently vacant Highland Square West, shown above, according to Akron Development Manager Adele Roth.
Mustard Seed Market, owned by Highland Square residents Phillip and Margaret Nabors, has been chosen by the city of Akron to develop a store at the 2.3-acre site bounded by West Market Street, Portage Path and Edgerton Road.
Photos: Ken Love
HIGHLAND SQUARE — A lot of congratulatory wishes are floating around this west-side neighborhood lately, but Adele Roth isn’t ready to bask in them quite yet.

After the city chose Mustard Seed Market to establish the long-awaited grocery store in Highland Square last week, Roth, the city’s development manager and point person on the lengthy search for a grocery operator, said there is much work to be done before the store becomes a reality.

“It’s still going to be tough no matter what,” Roth said. “We still have several hurdles.”

She said the city and the company must work together to finalize financing details, which will determine “what kind of actual legal and ownership structure that we can use to make it work.”

The city will prepare a development agreement with Mustard Seed that will be submitted to City Council for approval. Mustard Seed also will prepare designs for the new project.

Mustard Seed owner Phillip Nabors said he’s looking forward to the culmination of several years of attempts to become Highland Square’s grocery operator.

“We’ve lived in Highland Square for 28 years. We’ve long imagined doing a store there,” he said. “We know the neighborhood so well. This is our home. We want to feed the people.”

Despite the project being far from finalized, Roth said the fact the city received four proposals for the new grocery store was encouraging.

“It validated our idea that this is possible and it can be profitable,” she said. “We just needed to find the right people who work in a different way.”

The store in Highland Square is expected to be about 10,000 square feet in size, a much smaller footprint than a traditional store. Speculative plans for the Highland Square Mustard Seed store are for it to occupy as soon as possible the two empty storefronts in Highland Square East — or the “Chipotle building,” the building between FirstMerit Bank and the Highland Square Branch Library. Roth said it is possible Mustard Seed might begin by selling beer and wine there and possibly selling freshly prepared, deli and cold items from Highland Square West — the empty commercial building on the corner of West Market and Portage Path — with plans to expand Highland Square West into the final footprint for the store.

“The problem with the site is that it’s small, so how do you provide a complete offering?” Nabors said. “It may make sense to divide up the offering.”

He said because there already is a building on the site, design plans must include an adaptive reuse of the building.

Roth said it could be three or four months to finalize financial details and design plans for the store. Groundbreaking could occur this year, but she said it likely would be next year before construction is complete.

Phillip and Margaret Nabors wrote in their proposal to the city that the store would be “in short a mini-Mustard Seed (a seedling) with a well rounded offering of quality fresh foods that are value priced.” The proposal also highlighted the Nabors’ desire to begin the grocery operation in the Square as soon as possible.

“I just have this urge to go down to the corner and sell fruit on Saturdays,” Phillip Nabors said.

The store will accept food stamps, the Naborses said, and plans include a regular farmers’ market and periodic special events.

Phillip Nabors said he also would like to see Mustard Seed continuing its community education efforts, possibly utilizing the nearby branch library, neighborhood churches or the Highland Theater for cooking classes or events that highlight the company’s belief that organic food is different and better.

“It’s our mission, besides to sell food, to educate the public about what’s the difference,” he said. “If people don’t appreciate the difference in quality in our products, then we clearly look expensive.”

Part of Mustard Seed’s challenge, Nabors said, will be to leverage the small footprint of the store into a larger presence. He added he hopes to find a small-store model that could be replicated.

“We want to have some different-size formats other than the big box format that we can roll out in other locations,” he said.

The city had requested proposals in January for development of the 2.3-acre site that is bounded by West Market Street, Portage Path and Edgerton Road. After meetings with Highland Square businesses and residents, Mustard Seed was selected from among the four companies that submitted proposals.

“I’m grateful to all the grocery companies who participated,” Mayor Don Plusquellic said in a press release. “This was truly a demonstration of the strength of this neighborhood.”

Ellet IGA; Santisi Warehouse, of Youngstown; and Freshway Market were the other three companies submitting proposals.

“What pushed [the mayor’s decision] over the edge is the fact that [the Nabors] were from Highland Square themselves,” Roth said. “You can’t get any more local than somebody that lives right there in the neighborhood.

“It was a really hard decision,” she added. “I think that they all would have done a good job.”

“We want Mustard Seed to be successful at this location,” Plusquellic said. “We have already made a substantial investment in this neighborhood, and the residents want and need a grocery.”

At the end of 2010, the city acquired title to the buildings and 1.7 acres previously owned by Albrecht Inc. for $3.1 million. Together with a triangle of land (.67 acre) already owned by the city, the parcel will provide room for a store and parking.

“In the history of Akron, it’s unlikely that there’s been a redevelopment project that has been the subject of more discussion and more citizen input than this one,” Plusquellic said. “Highland Square is a unique neighborhood and deserves the thoughtful planning that has gone into this development.”

The redevelopment of Highland Square along the north side of West Market Street has been a lengthy project dating back nearly a decade with a great deal of involvement from the neighborhood. The city, developer Albrecht Inc., the Akron-Summit County Public Library and FirstMerit Bank entered into an agreement in late 2005, and the new branch library and two commercial buildings were constructed the following year.

Plans for a new grocery store, however, stalled during a difficult economy as Albrecht Inc. searched for a grocery operator per the development agreement. The new grocery store building did not break ground, as Albrecht Inc. planned to build to suit, and the commercial building nearest Portage Path remained vacant. Discontent festered in the neighborhood, which has been without a grocery store since the Star Market closed in 2005.

Late last year, the city purchased the Albrecht-owned property and took over the search for a grocer. Now that one has been found, “A lot of people in the neighborhood are happy,” Roth said.

In comments emailed to the West Side Leader, Anita Marron, president of the Highland Square Neighborhood Association, said on behalf of the association: “We would like to thank all the Highland Square residents who turned out to voice support for the grocery, all the seniors who signed petitions, and those folks who refused to let the needs of their neighborhood go unanswered. We especially want to thank Adele Roth of the City of Akron, for her tireless efforts to bring about the best of outcomes for the Square.

“We are thrilled to have the Mustard Seed as the new grocer for Highland Square. ... As longtime residents of Highland Square, the Nabors understand the diverse economic need that this store must serve. They have been committed to this neighborhood as residents for nearly three decades, and we look forward to them furthering that commitment as business owners.”

Nabors also said he’s received a great deal of positive feedback — to the point that four people told him they were going to move away from the neighborhood and now are going to stay.

“It’s affirming that people feel that strongly about the value, about having a quality shopping option nearby,” he said. “I think it’s wise on the city’s part to invest in supporting this endeavor.”

According to city officials, Mustard Seed began as a 200-square-foot natural foods operation in Merriman Valley 30 years ago and has grown into a company that operates a 31,000-square-foot store in Montrose that opened in 1989 and one in Solon, which opened in 1999.

Roth said now that a grocery operator has been identified with concrete plans for the new store, the onus is on local residents to support the business — along with other small businesses in the Square — not just in theory, but financially, too.

“Cherish them and spend your money there,” she said. “It’s what gives your neighborhood character and it gives the whole city something special.”

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