2017 may well be remembered as “the Retail Apocalypse,” with fatal blows extended to Indianapolis’ own HHGregg and Marsh Supermarkets. These once-proud exports are now merely sad testaments to the challenges plaguing brick-and-mortar stores.
The latter has our city facing the real possibility the Downtown Mile Square – long lauded for its flawless hosting of Final Fours and a Super Bowl – will double as a food desert at a time when more than 2,500 new apartments are slated to come online by the end of 2018.
Casualties will soon include a location in an art deco building dated to 1932 that originated as a Sears & Roebuck, and a sparkling mixed-use anchor that opened amidst great fanfare just two years ago.
But the real tragedy is happening in farther-flung neighborhoods that have long met the USDA’s actual definition of a food desert: an area where at least one-third of the population are considered low-income and live more than a mile from a grocery store.
Realistically, people of my relative means can weather the minor inconveniences of trips down 65 to Target and missing ingredients at the derided 16th Street Kroger. But that’s not always the case for the IUPUI student who chose to live adjacent to campus within biking or walking distance of most basic needs. And it’s certainly not the case for a low-income mother dependent on public transportation who’s lost access to fresh produce.
Back in 2015, in the wake of Double 8 Foods’ complete shutdown that created multiple food deserts across the city, Republican mayoral candidate Chuck Brewer called for the creation of Urban Grocery Development Areas (UGDAs). In the vein of Professional Sports Development Areas (PSDAs) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Districts that have respectively provided for world-class sporting facilities and various redevelopment initiatives, the idea was these UGDAs would funnel sales and income taxes from targeted geographies toward incentives for grocery stores to locate there.
My friend Chuck and his ideas ran into the juggernaut that was now-Mayor Joe Hogsett’s multimillion-dollar campaign – but the notion of an UGDA has stuck with me, especially in the context of Marsh’s sudden, impending death.
You see, odds are better than average a competing chain will snap up at least one of the two downtown Marsh locations, likely even before a long-awaited Whole Foods takes root in Market East. But my hope is any gap in downtown grocery service forces skeptics to simply acknowledge the concept of food deserts so proactive work to meet the needs of the underserved in these areas can get underway. (Sadly, a “food desert skeptic” is actually a thing, based on some derisive reactions to Chuck’s proposal.)
Is an UGDA the right approach? Maybe, maybe not…but it IS an example of creative thinking applied to a tangible problem. Like almost any tool dreamt up at the municipal level in Indiana, it would first need to be created by the state legislature before being utilized by local bodies.
At its basest, public policy is about channeling the vital, profit-making instincts of the private sector and the essential services of government toward jointly meeting the needs of the citizenry. What balance of the work is assigned to each is up for debate, but the first step is placing an issue firmly into the public sphere ahead of the actual debate.
There will be life after Marsh for Downtown residents. But food deserts scattered around our city and other urban environments need concentrated effort from lawmakers and well-intentioned private investment if they are to be quenched.