Nearly 600 Phoenix community members united this weekend on Facebook for a common cause: “Save Downtown Phoenix Public Market.”
Unbeknownst to most, the decision to close the Urban Grocery and Wine Bar, located in the Phoenix Public Market building at Central Avenue and Pierce Street, was finalized following many months of internal strife.
Last Saturday, Dan Klocke, board president of Community Food Connections and director of community and economic development for the Downtown Phoenix Partnership, sent an email to members and posted a notice on the Public Market website the store would be closing on May 12. In the same message, it was announced Cindy Gentry had resigned as executive director of CFC.
Despite the closure of the Urban Grocery and Wine Bar, the Open Air Market and Royal at the Market coffee bar will remain in operation, Klocke said.
Mario Etsitty, specialty chef at the Public Market, began his work with CFC by volunteering during the second Saturday open air market. When the adjoining store opened more than two years ago, Etsitty joined the staff and soon became known for the frescas he served in the store.
Gentry’s second hand at the grocery, Etsitty said he was her “shadow.”
“We had many countless times being each other’s soundboard,” Etsitty said. “I understood her commitment and dedication.”
Many factors contributed to the store’s economic downturn, Etsitty said.
In October 2011, construction began on Pierce Street, limiting income from street traffic. Unexpectedly, construction lasted until the beginning of January. During that time, Gentry said the market lost approximately $40,000 in revenue and 20-30 customers per day.
“The dates they chose were during what would have been our best time to rake in the revenue,” Etsitty said. “There were times when there was no access by car.”
Around that time, the CFC board, helmed by Klocke, told Gentry to reduce the Public Market’s budget by $50,000-75,000 or they would be forced to close, Etsitty said. Soon after, the market reduced their hours and days of operation.
“In the past, (Gentry) always found ways to keep them from closing the doors because they were not satisfied with the numbers,” Etsitty said of the CFC board. “For Cindy, it was not about making it about numbers. She, like my mother, was a single parent and often didn’t have a lot of money to buy weekly groceries. That made it very personal and reaffirmed her passion to give the community access to great quality foods.”
Included in the new budget was a position for a general manager at the market. The market received few applications for the position due to the modest salary, Etsitty said.
“There aren’t a lot of grocery stores that are not-for-profit,” Etsitty said. “I think that may have intimidated some applicants. We are unique in our endeavors.”
Gentry resigned the afternoon of April 30, with May 3 as her last day. On May 4, the Public Market’s staff met with Klocke and another board member, when they learned the CFC would be closing the store.
“I think her main reason for resigning was the differences she and the board had,” Etsitty said. “The board wanted to see significant increase in sales. Were they right? I don’t know. But I don’t think they had the community in mind or tried all possible means to keep the store open.”
The sudden announcement of the Urban Grocery’s closing has left the community shocked at the speed of the decision and the lack of transparency from CFC, according to numerous posts and comments on Facebook.
“My understanding with Cindy was that the board was going to continue as normal with some adjustments,” Etsitty said. “Obviously we were misled.”
Susan Copeland, the chair for Downtown Voices Coalition, is a downtown resident and shopped a lot at the store, she said. She was surprised by the apparent speed of the decision.
“Downtown, we emphasize a walkable lifestyle,” Copeland said. “I’ll have to go to the farmer’s market more often for organic produce, but I’ll actually need to drive now to get what I need.”
Edward Jensen, community member and downtown advocate, said he would miss the third space Urban Grocery created. He saw the Urban Grocery as a hub of activity and a community gathering space.
“Everyone knew about the Public Market,” he said. “It was such a great place for conversation.”
Jensen said without population density, businesses like this would continue to fail. But without amenities, there would be no attraction for new residents.
“Urban living is about walking distance. If we want urban vitality and urban density, we need to have walkable amenities,” he said.
Sean Sweat, an industrial engineer and downtown resident, also was shocked at the speed of the decision and was disheartened by city of Phoenix’s approach to business in general.
“We have no amenities downtown,” Sweat said. “We don’t have a dry cleaner. We don’t have a hardware store. Now we don’t have a grocery store.”
Sweat said there are problems associated with Government Property Lease Excise Tax. GPLET removes the business’s obligation to pay property taxes to the County of Maricopa and instead combines an excise tax and lease rate for those who qualify, which is significantly less expensive. The problem, Sweat said, is the only businesses that qualify for such a deal are big developments, such as Cityscape and the U.S. Airways Center.
“That means Kurt Schneider is paying more in taxes to the city of Phoenix than places like CityScape,” Sweat said. “Kurt then has to pass his costs on to tenants, and small business in downtown suffers for it.”
Klocke said he hopes the energy invested in trying to save the Urban Grocery and Wine Bar will go to further the progress of the outdoor market and cafe.
Kurt Schneider, landlord of the property and a downtown resident for over 20 years, had no deciding power over the closing of Urban Grocery, but insisted that CFC never went default on their rent.
Although there are no definite plans for the space, Schneider admitted to being impressed by the success of the Turf and the Breadfruit, and he said that restaurateurs had already approached him. Whatever replaces the urban grocery will fit the goals of the CFC’s outdoor market and Royal at the Market coffee bar, he said.
“When we put Humpty Dumpty back together again, we are going to bring the people of Phoenix something great,” Schneider said.
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The closing of the Phoenix Public Market raises many questions about the community in which it attempted to thrive. Read our answers to some of those questions in our editorial, Public Market closure leaves void in downtown community.