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City: Trader Joe's a Good Idea, but Tough Sell for Old Tops Plaza

Patch's Visions for Vacancies asks for your input on empty commercial storefronts

City: Trader Joe's a Good Idea, but Tough Sell for Old Tops Plaza City: Trader Joe's a Good Idea, but Tough Sell for Old Tops Plaza

It turns out a lot of people like the idea of a Trader Joe's "specialty retail grocery" storefront on South Water Street near S.R. 261.

But so far it's just that — an idea.

Sixty of the 138 total votes cast in about possible tenants for the space were cast in favor of Trader Joe's.

Like you, city leaders think the store that specializes in hard-to-find food stuffs would be a good fit for Kent.

"I really like the idea of Trader Joe’s," Kent Economic Development Director Dan Smith said.

It's one of several grocers, including Marc's, that Smith has reached out to in the past while on the lookout for potential tenants for the space, which has been empty since Tops left in 2006. Smith said he's had several conversations with different grocery stores about the close to 50,000 square foot space.

"But nothing that generated the amount of interest to actually get a site visit," he said.

Kent City Councilman Wayne Wilson, in whose Ward 3 the empty storefront sits, said he's heard a lot of residents say they want to see Trader Joe's in the space.

"I had never heard of that store before, but I’ve had a fair number of people mention that they felt that would be a good store for us to have," Wilson said. "I’ve talked to a lot of residents that feel they’d like to have a grocery store down here."

Harder than it sounds

Despite Kent's ongoing redevelopment, Wilson said outside interest in putting a grocery store there seems to have faded since opened just down the street in University Plaza a few years ago.

And actually getting a grocery store or large retailer to occupy the space isn't just a matter of picking up a phone and soliciting companies.

Smith said large chain retailers like Trader Joe's , including Cabela's, Whole Foods Market or Ikea, often come to cities with their hands out expecting a deal.

"You almost have to pay for them to come here, and that’s through incentives," he said.

Those incentives can vary from income tax breaks to promised infrastructure work or even free land.

"I don’t think we can afford to go out and get in the grocery store business,” Wilson said. “I think it should remain a free market type business."

And there are other factors aside from cash and incentives.

In 2007, the city contracted with a firm called the Buxton Company to develop four specific market profiles for four areas of Kent. The report developed profiles of consumers in Kent and surrounding communities very similar to the kinds of customer research conducted by large retailers. One of the four areas profiled was the S.R. 261 corridor, which included the Tops plaza.

The goal was give Kent an idea of what businesses it could concentrate its attention on that would prove successful if they opened here. Some of those businesses identified in the Kent study, including , have since moved to the area.

But large retailers know their demographics, Smith said, and they know if the Kent area has the kind of customers they're looking for. Still, he remains optimistic.

"While it’s very hard to contact them and get them interested, I think if they saw Kent Patch articles where everybody’s saying 'Yeah, we’d love to have that ...' I think it’s certainly worth reaching out again and saying 'hey, the Kent community wants you to be here.'"

Indoor farmers market

The suggestion that earned the second most votes in our Patch poll, 24, was the idea of moving the Haymaker Farmers Market from its outdoor location downtown to the former grocery store.

Kelly Ferry, the market manager, said it's not a move the seasonal, once-a-week market could afford to do on its own.

"I personally would love to see it happen," Ferry said.

Such a move could prove challenging for farmers and other market vendors.

Ferry said the huge amount of space would require a big commitment on the part of farmers to plant enough product to be open daily — and make enough money to pay the rent.

She's talked with vendors in the past about possibly running two days a week, but farmers were concerned they would simply be spreading the same customer base out over two days instead of drawing more shoppers.

"It obviously would be a huge challenge for the market to viably do that, to take over that space," Ferry said. "I don’t see how that could really work numbers wise, but there’s creative ways to do things."

Some of those creative ways could involve commitments from larger organizations, like , and even local hospitals, to buy product for their cafeterias and dining halls from local farmers. Then the demand might be there to pay the overhead associated with the space.

"Having a place where that food could be centrally brought in and distributed, that Tops spot is an awesome location because it’s so close to S.R. 261," she said. "(Interstate) 76 isn’t much farther.

"Do we have the volume being produced to support something like that?" Ferry said. "I don’t know that we do at this point."

If it ever becomes a serious discussion, Ferry said she wants to be at the table for it.

"I absolutely think anything like that is on the table," Smith said. "The issue is it always comes down to dollars and cents. It's fairly expensive real estate."

A difficult situation

The former Tops space is different from other vacant commercial properties because for several years after the grocery store left it was still paying on a lease for the property.

Smith said there was both a land owner and a building owner for the property at 1600 S. Water St., and for some time one of them was still receiving money from Tops. He tried recently to find out if that lease was still being paid on but did not hear back from the realtor for the property.

The fact revenue was still coming in may have lowered the incentive for either owner to find a new tenant.

"That made that property a little bit problematic," Smith said.

Two tenants remain in the plaza: and But 67,000 square feet of space remains empty, as do most of the plaza's 633 parking spaces on a daily basis.

Wilson said he's hopeful to see the space filled soon.

"But I’ve been hoping that for quite a while," he said.

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