KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Unified Government Commissioners Monday announced plans to partner with The Merc Co+op to bring a new grocery store to downtown KCK.
In the Economic Development and Finance committee meeting on Monday night, the U.G. said The Merc Co+op will be at 5th & Minnesota.
The announcement is a sign that what has long been called an "uphill battle" might finally reach the top.
"Ever since the Piggly Wiggly closed on 7th Street, we really have had a struggle with where are we going to get an onion, where are we going to get some tomatoes, where we going to get some bread, eggs or bacon. So we usually have to go up north or go up on Roe to Price Chopper out there," said Carolyn Wyatt with the Fowler Park Neighborhood Association.
East KCK's needs come down to a loaf of bread, the basics.
"It would be good to have a grocery store where I can always know that there's going to be some bread there and I don't have to go to the service station to get day old or old bread," Wyatt said.
It will be a $6 million project. The cost includes construction, a grand opening and a stabilization fund.
The U.G. will finance the project through the leftover funds from the Hilton Garden Inn sale in 2016 and a TIF, or tax increment financing.
Bach estimated an accurate breakdown of what those numbers will look like will come out next month.
"To say that falls on taxpayers, but its new dollars that I would say not as many of those are being currently generated within our community, because I think people that will go to this store, some of them are in KCK now, others are crossing the county line or the state line to shop, so bringing taxpayer dollars back into our community," County Administrator Doug Bach said.
He said no other grocery vendor would commit.
"When we started talking with [The Merc] last year, we could tell there was a lot of energy, they were willing to take on more risk, I guess, from a market standpoint," Bach said.
Bach says The Merc has been interested in KCK for about a year and had showed interest in being a part of the former $37 million Healthy Campus project, which the U.G. couldn't get off the ground because of the cost.
Healthy Campus was championed by former Mayor Mark Holland, who envisioned coupling a new YMCA with the grocery store, plus building new retail and apartments at 10th & Minnesota. Last winter the commission put the project on hold, deciding to focus more on securing a grocery store.
What will happen with the YMCA is still apparently on pause. YMCA supporters pledged $11 million to Healthy Campus and in February expressed concern with delaying the project.
Bach says the two are still talking about what comes next.
In November, the commission voted to use $2 million to buy the land at 10th & Minnesota. Bach says the purchase never went through, but the U.G. has already spent a "few hundred thousand dollars" in design costs that they might still be able to use.
What is The Merc?
The Merc runs a store in Lawrence on Iowa Street and a café in the Lawrence Public Library.
It runs off a consumer-owned cooperative model that emphasizes sustainable, locally-grown organic products. Currently, The Merc is owned by 7,700 members, but you don't have to be a member to shop.
Bach said The Merc tailors its stores toward its clientele, and a store in KCK will have different clientele than in Lawrence. The price point would be different in KCK based on what the community needs are, says Bach.
Wyatt says organic could work in KCK but, again, the goal is to have groceries, period.
"Fruits, vegetables, bacon, eggs, oatmeal. Just the average breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They just want wholesome food, fresh food," Wyatt said.
A recent blog post on The Merc's website by General Manager Rita York Hennecke says when the U.G. first approached them, they were skeptical, but that changed over time.
"The demographics don’t 'fit' with what market analysts identify as 'co-op shoppers,' and we feared being part of a gentrification project," Hennecke wrote. "But, as we explored this plan further, we found that many KCK community members have an awareness and a desire for a community-owned grocery store."
Hennecke went on to say in a statement to 41 Action News that they have not signed any binding contract yet, "nor determined store design or product selection."
"The community is in need of a grocery store, so why not partner with an organization that wants to do business in Wyandotte County?" Commissioner At-Large Tom Burroughs said.
Burroughs says The Merc model will work well with KCK, especially with a recent push to support urban farming.
"Wyandotte County is in need of healthy lifestyle changes and the organic process of which we can encourage local farmers to participate in a healthy environment, this is a great cornerstone for building a healthier Wyandotte County, and that's why I'm excited," Burroughs said.
A vote from the commission is expected in August.
Eventually, the UG is hoping to sell The Merc building to a private owner.
According to a 2017 annual report, The Merc's local sales came out to $3.8 million and had assets totaling nearly $5.6 million. That year they worked with 233 local vendors.