Winnipeg will not explore ways to encourage grocery stores to open in neighbourhoods in need after a city committee shot down the idea.
On Wednesday, Coun. Ross Eadie (Mynarski) urged council's executive policy committee to investigate incentives to encourage grocery stores to open in Winnipeg's "food deserts." He and Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge) first raised the issue at a recent city council meeting as Zellers in the Bay building, Extra Foods on Main Street, and Food Fare on Arlington Street have recently closed.
Eadie said there are parts of the North End where there are no grocery stores, and Winnipeg may have a real problem if other retailers such as Safeway decide to pull out. He said similar problems have occurred in cities such as New York, which now offer incentives to encourage grocers to open in underserved areas.
According to government documents posted online, New York City established a Food Retail Expansion to Support Health (FRESH) program to offer tax reductions and zoning incentives -- such as exemptions from parking requirements -- to encourage grocers to locate in neighbourhoods such as the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn. A study conducted for the New York mayor's food policy task force determined many neighbourhoods are underserved by grocery stores and the lack of nutritious, affordable fresh food has been linked to higher rates of diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart malfunctions.
To date, 12 grocery-store projects in neighbourhoods in need have been completed or are under construction, according to online New York City government data.
Winnipeg council's executive policy committee voted against Eadie's idea. Coun. Russ Wyatt (Transcona) said the grocery-store problem is not a municipal issue and blamed the provincial government for the poverty in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods.
Eadie said it's not necessarily a civic responsibility, but residents in certain parts of Winnipeg are frustrated at having to travel farther to buy food.
"We have to make sure people can live in their neighbourhoods," he said.
Mayor Sam Katz called the problem a "chicken-and-egg" issue in the city's downtown, as the area can't continue to grow without services, but services won't exist without density.
Downtown development agency CentreVenture is working with other area stakeholders, including the Forks North Portage Partnership and three business-improvement zones, to discuss ways of attracting new grocers to the downtown.
A local commercial real estate agent has been asked to prepare a report outlining what kind of market exists for downtown grocers.
Katz said the problem in the North End is different, and the government cannot necessarily fill the void in the private sector.
"Food, clothing and shelter, to me, are the three key areas that we should all be concerned about, but there are many ways to get there. I don't think we should be directly involved," he said.
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ executive director Stefano Grande said the city's downtown is not very dense and is spread over a large area, which tends to support more convenience stores, noting there are more than 23 downtown.
He said some cities have put seed money into downtown grocery stores in order to fuel residential growth, and the consultant's feasibility study will examine the right strategy for Winnipeg.
The challenge in the inner city is poverty, he said, and the traditional grocery-store model doesn't seem to work. Grande said other models, such as the Neechi Foods co-op, works very well.