A three-volume study released last week by the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development concludes that retail food services in the District are less than adequate.
If that sounds familiar it's because the same conclusion was reached in prior studies going back 10 years, at least.
Studies, assessments, reports and recommendations on the same subject continue to gather dust while the number of chain stores in the District has decreased from 91 to 33 since 1968. In fact, this latest study shows that the District has .77 supermarkets per 10,000 residents.
The ratio for eight other major cities studied for comparison is 2.08 per 10,000.
Basing their estimates on industry standards, authors of the new study concluded that the District could use at least 15 additional supermarkets.
That demand is being satisfied in large measure by facilities in outlying surburban communities, according to findings in the study by the new Institute for District Affairs at the University of the District of Columbia.
Even as the study was being presented at the District Building Tuesday, city-owned buses bearing elderly shoppers departed for supermarkets in suburban Prince George's County.
Generally, chain store executives have reserved comment on the conclusions reached in the UDC study until they have an opportunity to read them. The UDC report is "probably more sophisticated" than earlier studies, said one. But he agreed with others that the same obstacles to expansion in the District were known seven or eight years ago.
What the chain food-store industry is saying to District officials now and what they have been saying for years is: "Make us an offer we can't refuse."
The challenge has gone unanswered and the potential for $10 million in revenues to the District (based on an estimate of total taxes and benefits derived from 15 additional stores) remains a statistic in economic studies.
District officials continue to bemoan the fact that there are only two supermarkets in heavily populated Ward 8, for example, or that only 24 food stores of all types exist in Ward 7.
But beyond meeting with chain-store executives periodically to discuss the problem, city officials have exhibited little imagination and little initiative in stimulating an increase in supermarkets.
The limited growth exhibited in the past three or four years has been the result of industry initiatives, primarily those of Safeway Stores Inc., which has spent an estimated $15.5 million enlarging and replacing outdated stores and building the country's biggest supermarket at Hechinger Mall.
Safeway has replaced or enlarged at least nine of its 27 stores in the District over the past three years.
Giant, which operates only eight stores in the District, hasn't added to its total since 1979 when it opened a supermarket in the Shaw area as a joint venture with a community organization.
Both Safeway and Giant Food officials say they want to expand their presence in the District but that a lack of adequate, suitable and affordable land is a major deterrent. The supermarket industry has been saying that for years but the District has been slow to respond with inducements.
Another industry complaint recorded by the UDC researchers is equally familiar. "The District's initiatives regarding land assembly, disseminating information, and the regulatory process need improvement in order to facilitate the expansion of retail food service in the District," supermarket officials noted.
And, in interviews last week, officials of Giant and Safeway, the two dominant chains in the region, offered assurances that they are interested in expanding in the District and that they continue to look for possible store sites.
The average modern supermarket contains 41,000 to 47,000 square feet, a far cry from the average 15,000-square-foot stores that chains all but abandoned when they became too unprofitable to operate. Limited access for delivery trucks and restricted parking compounded the problem.
As a result, supermarket operators followed many of their customers to the suburbs where land has been cheaper and easier to assemble.
Giant officials estimate that land prices in the suburbs range between $2.75 and $3.25 a square foot. The UDC study estimates that land purchased for construction of a supermarket in the city would cost $25 to $35 a square foot.
Nonetheless, the study recommends a policy that District officials should have adopted and implemented years ago--"actively intervene in resolving land assembly and land acquisition problems" through direct purchase or rezoning of vacant or underutilized land.
Supermarkets may not be as glamorous or as imposing as huge office complexes. But where neighborhoods are concerned they are as vital to the local economy.
Development of a plan to improve retail food services in the city's neighborhoods ought to demand as much attention at the District building as a grandiose plan for building offices and hotels downtown.
"Food stores serve as an anchor for neighborhood and community shopping centers or shopping districts because other retail services tend to cluster around a food store and remain viable as profit-making businesses partly because of the presence of the food store," the UDC study concludes.
Convenient locations of food stores would also obviate the need for the District to transport elderly residents to the suburbs for their groceries."