Community

An influx of residential developments in downtown Jeffersonville, Ind. has some city leaders calling for a new grocery store to serve residents of the historic district.

Hundreds of new housing units have been built in the past year, and hundreds more are either under construction or in the planning stages. The growth is part of an initiative by Jeffersonville officials to bring more than 700 new residents to the city’s core. But that could put a strain on downtown’s lone grocery store, Cash Saver, known to locals as Olde Towne Grocery.

The plan to transform downtown was put into motion with the Big Four Bridge project that wrapped in 2014. The years that followed have seen the area blossom into a buzzing destination.

“I remember what it was like in 2010,” Mayor Mike Moore said. “That wasn’t an area you wanted to be around after dark. There are a lot of good people that live down there, and they deserved better. We’ve given it to them. We’ve given them a safer, fun, more pleasant experience.”

Moore credits the walking bridge with attracting popular restaurants and festivals, and the 100,000 people who walk over the span every month have increased foot traffic at existing local establishments. The long-term goal, however, wasn’t just to make downtown Jeffersonville a place people want to visit, but to make it a place people want to call home.

That idea has translated into several sizable housing developments popping up in the vicinity of Big Four Station Park. Two projects on the perimeter of the park have a combined 244 units, and another development that’s under construction one block away will have 22 units. Plans have also been announced for two complexes that will bring an additional 388 units to other nearby properties.

But when residents begin to fill those units, Moore worries that the small Olde Towne Grocery won’t be able to keep up with demand.

“Olde Towne Grocery has been one of the landmarks for the City of Jeff for decades,” he said. “I love having it down there. I’d like to see something even better… The one thing we’ve got to get is a grocery store down here that’s going to satisfy the needs for all these new residents.”

Other figures who have played a role in the city’s growth agree that downtown will likely need a new grocery store in the coming years. Jay Ellis is the executive director of Jeffersonville Main Street, an organization that has focused on revitalizing and promoting the city for more than 30 years.

He said while Olde Towne has played a vital role in the community for decades, the city may need another option as it continues to grow. If shoppers need items that aren’t stocked at Olde Towne, they would have to travel about five miles to get to one of the larger stores in Jeffersonville or Clarksville.

“We’re lucky that downtown Jeffersonville has a grocery, and it’s a place where you can get bare necessities,” Ellis said. “In visioning sessions and discussions for the future of downtown over the years, that has come up several times where people have said they’d really like to have a larger grocery store with a more expansive offering of products. And I think downtown Jeffersonville is ready for it.”

But Jeffersonville City Council Member Dustin White, who represents much of downtown, has concerns about bringing in a new grocer. He said he’s currently satisfied with Olde Towne, as it offers the basic necessities.

“Olde Towne has everything we need, but I think because it’s been there so long, maybe because it’s not new, people don’t necessarily have a good impression of it,” White said.

If the demand becomes more evident as new residents move in, White said a lack of space in the city would likely leave only two options – either expand Olde Towne’s current location or bring a new store to the Jeffersonville Gateway on 10th Street. Any new store, he noted, would have to be affordable and sustainable, so that it doesn’t close and leave behind a vacant building if it doesn’t work out.

“What I don’t want is some store to get plopped into downtown Jeff that is too expensive for anybody to shop at,” he said. “They won’t survive, because there’s only a few people that would be going down there. It might sound good. A few people would get excited, but it’ll be too expensive for the area.”

There are alternatives to the idea that a new grocery store would have to be large. Alan Muncy is the founder and chief creative officer of arc, the development company behind two of the residential projects near Big Four.

He believes downtown could benefit from something small, adding that he’s even considered putting a grocery store and deli on the first floor of one of his new buildings. Such an investment, however, could come with challenges.

“[Grocery stores] operate on volume, and they make their money from volume,” Muncy said. “It’s so hard to compete and be able to make the amount of money it takes to keep the store open, because really, a grocery store in downtown is going to be a small business. Someone like Walmart or Meijer isn’t going to come down here, nor do we, in my opinion, want them down here. We want to be local.”

If and when a grocer does attempt to open a downtown store, White and fellow council members said there are things the city can do to make the process easier. Some mechanisms include offering a tax abatement and reducing requirements for parking spaces and other zoning aspects.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.