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Small Grocery Is Part Of Progress Toward City's Downtown Food Store Goals


July 30, 2010

They might not be the big, splashy gourmet grocery extravaganzas that city leaders have hoped to see in downtown Hartford, but a couple of projects on Asylum Street are promising steps in that direction.

A market and deli is now under construction at 421 Asylum by the former owner of a grocery store in the Frog Hollow neighborhood. And, just a few hundred yards to the west, The Hollander at 410 Asylum, is now getting fresh, locally grown produce delivered weekly for its residents, part of a community-supported agriculture program.

For years, the focus has been on the high-profile but stalled projects such as the gourmet grocer at the Hartford 21 complex on Asylum.

City officials praise the efforts on Asylum to bring groceries to those who live and work in downtown, seen as crucial to restoring vibrancy to the city. But they say the end game still must be a "full-service" grocer that provides enough so that shoppers don't have to go elsewhere to finish up getting their meats, dairy and staples.

The market and deli at 421 Asylum will occupy a 1,700-square-foot storefront, but that is far more modest than the 5,000-square-foot or larger space that city officials say is needed for a full-service grocery.

"We're still focused on the multiple thousands of square feet," said David E. Panagore, the city's chief operating officer. "When you live in a downtown and you have a couple of places that are 1,000 square feet, you have to shop other places, too."

But Panagore said that smaller markets, such as the one planned for 421 Asylum, could eventually expand into what the city envisions.

"Maybe it's this gentleman," Panagore said.

Al Jahmee, who sold his grocery store in Frog Hollow 18 months ago, chose the downtown location because it was central. It is across from the Hartford 21 apartment tower and just down the street from CityPlace, where UnitedHealthcare recently moved 2,100 employees.

He has also known that there has been a need for a grocer in downtown Hartford, he said.

Power saws this week sliced through wood planks that are being fit together for a deli counter and display shelves that will eventually hold meats, dairy, fruits and vegetables, breads and other baked goods, canned food and other items.

The windows to the storefront at 421 Asylum are papered over to block the view of the work inside. Only a small sign "Al's Market, Coming Soon" above the door announces an imminent opening. When Jahmee has been on the street outside, the reaction of passersby has been positive, he said.

"They look up at the sign and say, 'Finally!' " Jahmee said.

At The Hollander, Grow Hartford a community-supported agriculture program has been delivering bags of fresh vegetables to residents in the building this summer who have purchased shares in the program. Common Ground, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating housing and ending homelessness, renovated and now manages The Hollander.

"It's created some great buzz in our building," said Katy Frankel, project manager for housing development and operations at Common Ground.

The Hollander had hoped to open a green grocer in the building by this summer in commercial space that it has renovated on street level. A workable plan has not been found, but it is still a goal of the organization.

Instead of waiting to open a grocer, Frankel said, The Hollander is trying other ways of getting groceries downtown. The CSA program has been successful, but a "buying club" did not pan out because after a few weeks, it became clear that buying items in bulk wasn't going to work long-term.

Frankel said that the opening of Al's Market won't affect The Hollander's push to open a market, which could have a focus on organic foods.

"These are all complementary approaches of getting groceries to folks who need them," Frankel said. "The more competition, the better."

Northland Investment Corp., the owner of Hartford 21, had signed the upscale Bliss Market to occupy the 8,500-square-foot space reserved for a grocery store in the complex. But those plans collapsed as construction costs escalated. Northland subsequently sank $2 million into outfitting space, directly across the street from where Jahmee intends to open.

Mary Brennan Coursey, a Northland spokeswoman, said that the opening of the market is a further sign of confidence in downtown.

"It's always good news when businesses choose to invest and open in downtown Hartford," Coursey said. "We continue to work hard to identify an operator for Hartford 21's 8,500-square-foot gourmet market that will meet the needs of city residents and workers."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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