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Roanoke and ARPA: a community grocery store

Goodwill Industries of the Valleys is ponying up another $20 million for the store and plans to run it.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Goodwill Industries of the Valleys is ponying up another $20 million for the store and plans to run it.

It’s been more than three years now since COVID-19 ground everything to a halt.

Part of the government response to the pandemic were several massive spending measures – including the Coronavirus Air, Relief and Economic Security – or CARES – Act. There was also the American Rescue Plan, also known as ARPA.

Much of that money flowed straight to state and local governments – in many cases to do with what they thought best. Local governments and planners have called it the new deal of our generation.

All this week we’ll be taking a look at what Virginia has done with the funds – starting in Roanoke.

We’re going to learn a bit about what’s possible when local governments feel flush with cash. And we’re going to start in Northwest Roanoke, where the city chose to invest $10 million of ARPA funding to help build a grocery store.

“We're on Melrose Avenue right now, right at the corner of 24th. And Melrose and Northwest Roanoke.”

Donna Davis is director of special projects and events for Goodwill Industries of the Valleys. And she’s a Northwest resident.

“And there used to be a grocery store at 19th and Melrose. Over 30 years ago. It was a Kroger.”

Davis remembers well, her grandmother lived a block away…

“So, she was always having me walk there to get things for her,” Davis says. “You know, she was known for her pound cakes.”

But it’s been decades since that store closed. And now, if you need pound cake ingredients, you gotta get in your car and drive. Assuming you’ve got a car.

“So, being in this area means that you're either got to buy your groceries before you get home, or you got to get home and realize you don't have anything you gotta get back in the car and drive, to get just the basics of what you need.”

In the early 20th century, Northwest was a thriving self-sufficient Black community, including markets. And then the federal government invested heavily in highways and purposefully drove them straight through communities like this one.

“And there used to be a grocery store at 19th and Melrose. Over 30 years ago. It was a Kroger.”

It’s a story written in the landscape across Virginia: Richmond’s Jackson Ward. Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill. And Roanoke’s Northwest.

Homes and businesses destroyed. Families displaced.

“My biggest fear is that what we call urban renewal, which was more like gentrification will happen again.”

Natasha Saunders is a resident of Northwest today, and a Roanoke school board member. She grew up here and it holds a special place in her heart.

“It's so funny. When I tour people around, they normally ask ‘Was this all of Roanoke?’ And I've had to pause and say, ‘No, it's not. It's actually just my version of Roanoke,’” Saunders says.

Her grandfather worked at Norfolk Southern. Her grandmother raised 10 children. They did it in Northwest.

Today, she wants it to be a neighborhood where descendants like herself can make their own homes. Part of that is making sure basic needs are met. Including easy access to fresh food.

She sees it as a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars. It’s frustrating, she says, when others expect the community to pull itself up by its bootstraps.

“And we don't have any bootstraps,” Saunders says. “We had bootstraps at one point, but someone took our boots and our straps and it's kind of aggravating that people may look inside of Northwest and say, ‘Well, why aren't y'all doing more? For yourselves? Or opening up your own grocery store?’ You know, but how can we do that when we have no resources?”

Bringing a grocery store to this neighborhood has been a priority for the city for almost a decade. But community partners haven’t been able to convince a privately-owned, full-service store to set up shop. And running a nonprofit store would require an investment that just wasn’t available.

Until ARPA funds. Joe Cobb is Roanoke’s Vice Mayor.

“The ARPA dollars really allowed us to look at where we've had some gaps in services in the community. And to address those head on.”

The city allotted $10 million to get the ball rolling on Melrose Market, and Goodwill Industries of the Valleys is ponying up another $20 million and will run the market.

They know it may take years to break even and turn a profit. But they’re dedicated to the long haul and are hoping for a grand opening by the end of next year.

In addition to the grocery store there will be a bank, clinic and even a high school for adults who had previously never graduated.

It’s the kind of investment that had been on the city’s wish list for years.

“And I think it's important for us to always dream about those,” Cobb says. But when we have this moment in time, to actually make some of those things happen. That feels really special.”

So that’s what ARPA funding looks like in Roanoke. Next stop on the COVID-relief road trip is Bristol.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.
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