The ceremonial ribbon was cut on The Market at Eastpoint, a grocery that will have symbolic and functional value along N.E. 23rd east of the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
It was not just another ribbon-cutting in a city where there have been many over the last several years. One was just two days before and not that far away.
“I think it’s more than just a grocery store,” Jabee Williams told Free Press just before the event. The rapper and business owner grew up in the area and still lives there.
“So, it’s the idea behind this grocery store being really a community-led grocery store. That’s the thing.”
And, OKC Ward 7 Councilmember Nikki Nice, also a native of the area referred to the store in emotional and symbolic terms during the ceremony.
“My heart is full because it took a long time to get here,” said Nice to a cheering crowd.
And, Caylee Dodson, a key leader in Restore OKC at the center of the project, neighbors have had some strong feelings about it, too.
“Yesterday, when we were setting up, we had a neighbor walk in and look at the renderings of the what it’s going to look like on the inside and she just burst into tears.”
She said it represents more than just providing food.
“But it’s more than that. Right? Its purchasing power, its economic development, its investment in a community that says we’re not even just going to do a food access point. We’re going to put the nicest store in the whole city right here because we know that this is a community that’s long deserved it.”
Later, after the ceremony, Nice talked to us about the meaning of the expansion of grocery options in her home neighborhood with two ribbon-cuttings in the same week.
The other was at N.E. 36th and Lincoln where Homeland plans to build a 30,000 square foot store.
“My heart is full,” Nice told us. “Food access is all we want and it takes ventures like this and what we’re doing on the other side in order to make that work and for our communities to have access.”
Both projects are the culmination of intense recent work by Nice to turn private and public resources toward the area that has been inarguably neglected by banks and investors for decades.
Mayor David Holt, and others on the City Council, have invested city dollars and have drawn private investors, including Homeland (HAC, Inc) and MetaFund to develop the new, large store at 36th and Lincoln.
It took the Alliance for Economic Development, an experienced, private go-between for the city to sew together the mix of big investors for a big, ambitious project.
Learn more from past coverage: Homeland groundbreaking brings hope to eastside residents of food desert
But, the store on 23rd is a very different collaboration with a nonprofit, Restore OKC, taking the lead. That organization has been investing a broad spectrum of work in the area for years now organizing rehab on houses and developing a demonstration plot for urban farming and hydroponics.
“One was our city dollars. And the other was actually volunteers and other nonprofits, churches and organizations which is what we need to invest in our community different ways,” Nice told us.
The difference in scale alone is dramatic.
The 36th and Lincoln project involves building a large store meant to pull from the entire east side of the city from top to bottom sharing an expansive campus with a new senior wellness center being developed. The ribbon-cutting itself was a big, expansive layout with a Homeland truck trailer as the backdrop.
The ribbon-cutting on 23rd Saturday involved the front of the store so closely-tied to the street that attendees spilled out into the normally busy 23rd. Volunteers parked cars on the two south lanes to divert traffic.
Intimate, close location
The 7,000 square foot space is in a recently renovated building due east of the Capitol on N.W. 23rd Street between Kelham and Rhode Island streets.
It will be an intimate, neighborhood store that will be a positive part of street life along 23rd. It’s a welcome addition and sign of hope to those who remember that stretch of 23rd as a thriving area of Black enterprise as late as the early 1970s but hollowed out since by a lack of investment over recent decades.
The area has been a clear example of the term “food desert” where there are no full-service grocery stores within easy travel distance for the residents.
Free Press broke the news in late July 2019 that the Smart Saver at 23rd and Martin Luther King Avenue would close within days. It was the last full-service grocery in the area. Smart Saver is a budget division of the Buy for Less corporation but has fresh meats and vegetables.
Learn more from past coverage: Only full-service grocery store on east side closing Monday
Restore OKC has led benevolent investors like Life Church to contribute to the effort so that groceries can be kept at a price point locals can afford in a part of the city dominated by the elderly and the poor.
Homeland will be providing the logistics and supplying the goods as any wholesaler would to a grocery.
But, the nonprofit nature of the effort will mean that no profit is built into the price in hopes that approach will keep groceries at a price point neighbors in the area can afford.
“That really puts a lot of the stress on Restore OKC because you have to go fundraise. You’re not going to make money off of this. That’s not the goal,” Jonathan Dodson told Free Press.
He is one of the partners in the Pivot Project that was able to buy the old building the store will be in, completely rework it and lease out the other part to Centennial Health, a community health-oriented company.
“For this, though – to have both healthcare and food is crazy,” said Dodson.
“You know, this is still going to be a learning curve. But I think we’re making more progress. Like, this is just another step. And the steps aren’t easy, but you’ve just got to keep pushing.”
New life on 23rd
Kimberly Gilyard (this reporter’s sister-in-law) grew up only a few blocks from the location and was there for the ribbon-cutting.
She never thought 23rd would descend to the hollowed-out strip of bare lots and empty buildings that it is today. But, the new development represents some hope.
“It’s great to see it come back because it was a thriving community,” Gilyard said. “When I was a child, I couldn’t wait to grow up to be a part of it. And, over the years, I’ve seen it dwindle down to nothing. So to see a comeback is truly amazing. I’m excited for it. I’m glad to see that.”
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