Why don’t we have a grocery store?
Mayor Courts spoke with me at some length and this is one of the conversations that we had about Dupont.
Dave Maestas: Mayor Courts, we covered a lot of ground in our last interview, I think we should take a smaller bite this time. You are out in the community campaigning, what is it that you are hearing from people in the community?
Mayor Courts: Dave, I enjoy getting out and meeting the people who live in DuPont. It is interesting to hear what they think about our community, what their concerns are and what we can do to improve it. I can say confidently, the number one question I get is “Why don’t we have a grocery store?” At first glance it does seem odd that a city with a population of almost 10,000, that is 8 miles from the next closest town (which also doesn’t have a grocery store), does not have a major grocery chain. Having spent four years on City Council before being elected mayor, I can say this is not a new question, nor am I the first mayor who is challenged by this issue. Let me take this in two parts, first why we do not have a grocery store and then what are we doing about it.
First, a little background on the grocery business. I have spoken to several grocers to get a better understanding of their challenges. The grocery business runs off a very small margin. Food spoilage and competition limit their profits greatly, so overhead and competition (perceived or real) are big factors.
There are two primary reasons we do not have a grocery store. The first is our demographics. We have a unique population, based on the most recent South Sound Military and Community Partners (SSMCP) survey, DuPont is the most military city in the State. We have a population that is 30% active duty military families and 40% military retiree. This means 70% of our population has access to the commissaries at JBLM. I consider this perceived competition because the recurring theme I hear is that a good grocery store in DuPont would not only attract our population (military and non-military) but it would also attract people who live on base. The commissary is a great benefit, but it is not as awesome as some think. Between selection, hours and convenience, many military families prefer to shop in a good civilian grocery store, but grocers do see the commissary as a real threat to their business.
The second issue is our high lease rates. This is a historical issue that takes some explanation. When the NWL master planned community was laid out in 1985, the Intel Campus was the core industry/employer. It was envisioned to have 5-6000 employees in good paying jobs. The area that is Edmond Village was planned as an office park to support the Intel campus. The area around the golf course (Old Fort Lake) was a business and technology park, also supporting the Intel campus. If you want to see what this looks like, visit Liberty Lake outside of Spokane with 11,000 people, built around an HP campus. This is what DuPont was intended to be, a little Bellevue south. Based on this plan, the downtown commercial property was sold to developers at very high cost. By the time the Intel campus opened in 1993, their business model had already changed, and the facility never employed more than 1200 people. The Edmond Village office park became housing and the Old Fort Lake property is still undeveloped. The owners of the downtown property were left with very high cost land and no high-tech population ready to use it. The downtown property was developed but the lease rates are based on the original high cost. Our lease rates are running about double what comparable properties in the Lacy or Lakewood areas would cost. These rates, coupled with the demographics and competition I have already covered, make DuPont particularly unattractive to the grocery industry.
All that said, we still need/want a grocery store.
The challenges do not mean we give up, they just mean we need to be more creative and work harder. I mentioned in our previous interview that the City Council took a zoning step to encourage retail/grocery development. It is difficult to remove allowable land uses from property once it is zoned and placed into private ownership, at least without the owner’s consent. It is, however, easy to add uses. In this case, two years ago, the City Council added multi-use to the property at the corner of Center Drive and DuPont-Steilacoom Road. This would allow for retail on the first floor and even residential on second floors. We thought this was a good use and location for this type of property. None of the local grocery chains were interested in our approaches so we reached out to a German grocer, Aldi that is now operating in the United States. They have some smaller store models that look very suitable for DuPont. They are along the east coast and now have a presence in southern California. I wrote to their regional leadership suggesting that DuPont could be a good location for their expansion into the NW and that besides a store, we had adjacent property suitable for a regional distribution facility. The Council and I have also discussed what incentives we could offer a business to develop here, particularly permitting fees and a period of grace on our Business and Occupation tax (B&O). These are tools we have at our disposal to make locating in DuPont more attractive. So far none of the grocers we have reached out to have been enticed to locate here. We will leave this additional property use on this location so that in the future, as the market changes, and redevelopment becomes a possibility, the property is already zoned for a use we would like to see it placed into.
There are still some properties in the City that may be attractive for development of a grocery store and as developers approach us, we will continue to encourage that use and, with Council, look at what incentives are appropriate to encourage development of a grocery store and other retail.
Not an easy or quick solution, but I and Council stay committed to do everything we can to bring a grocery store to DuPont. Again, Dave, thank you for the question.
Dave Maestas: I heard you are launching a new website. What is the site?
End of interview.
Keep coming back for more interview questions with the Mayor.