D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large) put the District on the right track last year when he introduced legislation providing incentives for supermarket chains to open more stores in the city. But Ray's supermarket tax incentive bill has languished in committee for nearly a year, apparently failing to win the support that had been anticipated.
Given the apparent lack of enthusiasm for the bill up to now, the key to passage may lie in considerable prodding by public interest groups and by Mayor Marion Barry and Council Chairman David Clarke, cosponsor of the measure.
In the meantime, the supermarket industry is under no real pressure to expand in the District. In the absence of meaningful incentives to invest further in the District, operators of chain food stores will continue to cite high land prices and the unprofitability of small, outmoded stores as reasons for reducing their presence in the city.
Perhaps a report issued last week by a congressional committee will spur the D.C. government into acting soon on Ray's bill, which could become a model for other U.S. cities. The report of the House Select Committee on Hunger cites the migration of competitive supermarkets from cities as a major cause of higher food costs for the poor.
The committee's investigation showed that consumers in urban and rural communities, served primarily by small independent grocers, are forced to pay 30 percent more for food than those with access to competitive supermarket chains.
In reporting its findings, however, the committee broke no new ground. The committee report merely reinforces what already had been documented in the District and other major urban centers: The exodus of the supermarket industry to the suburbs has increased "the economic drain on the urban ... low-income consumer's already limited food budget, reducing, and in some cases, removing the opportunity for low-income households to shop competitively."
In truth, the supermarket industry has all but written off America's cities in a 20-year migration to the suburbs. The select committee's report, "Obtaining Food: Shopping Constraints on the Poor," acknowledges that the exodus to the suburbs has provided the supermarket industry with cheaper land, better control over operational "hazards" and, in general, greater profits.
Information obtained by the committee from the Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for the food chain industry, shows that in 1981, 90 percent of the conventional grocery stores in inner-city neighborhoods were closed. More than half the new supermarkets that opened that year in suburban communities were much bigger units called "super stores," according to the report.
As these trends continue, the committee noted, low-income urban and rural consumers have fewer food markets in their communities. Indeed, consumers in most urban neighborhoods, as developments in the District have shown, are affected by what Rep. Mike Espy (D-Miss.) terms the "deleterious effects" of the supermarket migration to the suburbs.
The panel stopped short of recommending specific actions to reverse the trend but urged consideration of several policy options that might be useful.
As it turns out, Ray was almost a year ahead of the select committee when he proposed tax breaks and other incentives to encourage operators of supermarket chains and small and medium-sized grocery stores to expand in the District.
Under Ray's bill, the District would waive rent for up to five years for supermarkets built on city-owned land and waive property taxes for up to 10 years for food stores developed by their owners on privately owned parcels.
There also would be an abatement of property taxes, based on a formula to be established by the District, for supermarkets developed by persons other than the operators.
In addition, the legislation would authorize the District to provide low-interest loans to supermarket owners, to be used for acquisition of store fixtures and equipment, including computerized cash registers, freezers and grocery carts.
Ray's bill is, in fact, the essence of what the House Select Committee on Hunger had in mind when it presented its policy options last week. It is, at the same time, the framework of what could become a model program for study by the select committee on hunger.
If it accomplishes nothing else, passage of the bill would send a loud and clear message to officials in the food industry who have said they would invest in the city if cooperative efforts were made to lower their operating costs.