Prince George’s County and the city of Seat Pleasant are using tax incentives and loans to recruit a nonprofit grocer they hope will eliminate a food desert in the small municipality along the D.C. border.
The planned opening of Good Food Markets in Seat Pleasant this fall will serve as a “test case” for how Prince George’s can attract affordable, healthful stores to inside-the-Beltway communities that have seen Safeways and other supermarkets shutter in recent years.
If Good Food, which launched its first and only store three years ago in Northeast Washington, is successful, county officials say they will try to use similar economic incentives to lure other grocers to remaining underserved areas.
“I’m going to be looking for the next opportunity to do this quickly,” said Larry Hentz, a business development specialist with the Prince George’s Economic Development Corp.
Good Food promises to be actively engaged with its host communities, hiring locally, promoting workforce training and getting students involved in urban agriculture. Those who run it are “completely happy with a break-even model” and understand that in some years there will be losses, said Philip Sambol, executive director of Oasis Community Partners, which operates Good Food.
“It’s what social enterprise is,” Sambol said. “We’re automatically looking at areas that have been written off by the traditional grocery store model.”
Prince George’s has had some highly publicized successes in attracting quality grocers to more affluent communities, including the opening of a Wegmans in Lanham and the launch of a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods in Riverdale Park.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III celebrated the latter as “the realization that the county is competitive with the region” — proof that Prince George’s, the most affluent majority-African American jurisdiction in the United States, was no longer an afterthought for big-name chains and businesses.
But residents in the poorest areas of the county have watched a different story unfold. Five Safeways inside the Beltway have closed since 2010, leaving the county’s most densely populated areas with just one location, which opened in Hyattsville in 2016.
There are eight Safeways outside the Beltway in Prince George’s, which has a population of nearly 1 million and is Maryland’s second-largest jurisdiction.
When Seat Pleasant’s Safeway closed in the summer of 2016, the community was in “an uproar,” said longtime resident Jacqueline Battle, 61, who has congestive heart failure and now mostly relies on rides from friends and neighbors to get to the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy two miles away.
“We heard the news, then it closed within a week,” Battle said. “Personally, I dread going to the store now.”
Safeway spokeswoman Beth Goldberg said that in quarterly performance reviews, the Seat Pleasant store “had been identified as underperforming for some time.”
The decision to close, she added, was “tough.”
For Carnita Easterling, a 57-year-old nurse, the closing meant she no longer had easy access to affordable meat and produce.
“Oh, my God, I miss it,” she said, standing in the Addison Plaza shopping center where the Safeway has been replaced by a Dollar Tree, Planet Fitness and a Super Beauty store. Good Food plans to occupy a 3,800-square-foot vacant lot next to the dollar store.
“I thought, ‘Where am I going to go?’ ” said Easterling, who does not have a car and used to push her own cart to Safeway then wheel it home. “I don’t mean any offense to the Dollar Tree, but it’s not the same.”
Prince George’s officials have identified six areas that qualify as food deserts, or places where no affordable, high-quality groceries are available: Capitol Heights, which borders Seat Pleasant, population 4,769; Fairmount Heights, Forestville, Glenarden, Oxon Hill and Wheeler.
Hentz toured grocery stores up and down the East Coast that successfully operate in smaller footprints than traditional supermarkets and connected with leaders of Good Food, whose D.C. store is on Rhode Island Avenue NE.
Seat Pleasant awarded Good Food $250,000 from its revolving loan program and put up $5,000 for a market feasibility study, which showed strong demand for prepared food and fresh fruits and vegetables despite high unemployment and poverty rates.
Prince George’s offered targeted tax credits and possible funding from its Economic Development Incentive fund.
When Mayor Eugene W. Grant announced the planned opening of the store during his State of the City address last month, residents stood and cheered.
“This could be the dawning of a new day,” Grant said in an interview.
Good Food’s store in the District’s gentrifying Woodridge neighborhood is meeting projections, Sambol said. All but one of its 15 employees are from the District, and most live in Ward 5, where the store is located.
But other parts of the nation’s capital are still struggling, just like the poorer parts of Prince George’s. In Wards 7 and 8, on the District’s eastern edge, there are only three full-service grocery stores for 160,000 residents. Complaints about moldy produce and old meat at one Safeway were so frequent last year that they drew the attention of D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7).
The effort to bring Good Food to Prince George’s has not been without squabbling.
Grant, a fierce and sometimes controversial politician who for a time was banned from city hall and operated from a pop-up mobile tent, said his office was blindsided by the county’s effort to recruit Good Food and should have been notified earlier in the process.
He also complained that Seat Pleasant has footed bills the county could have, including paying for the feasibility study.
“I haven’t seen a sense of urgency from the county,” Grant said.
Hentz said confidentiality agreements limited his ability to alert Seat Pleasant to his early negotiations with Good Food. The county, he said, is moving as quickly as is feasible.
County Council member Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale), a self-described lover of grocery stores, said the issue is a serious one for the county that the Economic Development Corp. should address as fast as it can.
“But I’m not a marketing executive,” Harrison said. “I know it takes time to do the research and marketing and find the right places.”