Norfolk council quietly offers up $900,000 incentive for grocer to open in Berkley

Norfolk

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The cries for the city to do something to combat a food desert in one of its communities have been loud, but a recent move to answer those cries was done quietly and without public notice.

Tuesday night, Norfolk City Council voted unanimously to approve spending $400,000 dollars — on top of $500,000 from the Economic Development Authority — to help incentivize a new independent grocery store to move into a former Farm Fresh in the Berkley area.

That area is considered a food desert, meaning residents don’t have access to fresh, quality food.

Bernard “Pee Wee” Thompson, 67, said the news is welcome for his community of over 40 years.

“A big — it’s a humongous deal. It’s a deal it’s gigantic for us. You know in today’s society it seems like a regular thing to be able to go get something to eat,” Thompson said. “I just hope it’s true.”

At the time this article was published, Thompson, nor anyone else, would have any way of knowing about the official city action by looking at Norfolk’s website. 

The resolution council voted on was not on the agenda, and no public documents were updated later.

What council approved is a cooperation agreement between the city and Economic Development Authority that says Berkley Supermarket LLC — under P3 Properties based in Suffolk — has committed to opening a full-service supermarket with a prepared-foods eatery in the approximately 27,805-square-foot storefront. It is in the Berkley Shopping Center on East Berkley Avenue.

Of the $900,000 the supermarket operator may be eligible to receive from the city, $400,000 will be a forgivable loan. The rest, $500,000, is a performance-based grant. It will all help with improving the supermarket space and adding inventory and equipment.

According to a copy of the ordinance obtained by 10 On Your Side, the city said the “attraction of a grocery store in Berkley is a cause worthy of financial assistance.”

But when the city clerk read the ordinance title ahead of the vote, Councilman Tommy Smigiel said he was being asked to vote on something he had never seen.

“City council members did not get a copy of the resolution,” Smigiel said.

While Smigiel said conversations about the deal occurred in closed session, typically council members receive all resolutions in a city dropbox ahead of the meeting unless it is considered a “walk-on.”

“Most of the time when we have walk-on items, it’s a board appointment, nothing major, but this one was a walk-on item and it was a little bit disturbing as it is money given to this development. There was no opportunity for a public announcement or public input on it,” Smigiel said.

Smigiel still voted to approve the agreement, although he had not read it, because he has long supported putting another grocery store in the community.

The Farm Fresh in the shopping center closed in May 2018. The closure was part of a mass-shutdown and buy-out of Farm Fresh stores in Virginia. Some stores were sold to Food Lion, Kroger and Harris Teeter, while others simply closed.

Now, only a Family Dollar and nearby convenience stores are the local options for area residents to buy food.

Exactly one year ago on Wednesday, Norfolk officials told WAVY News the city had approved at least $500,000 to help attract a new store to Berkley. At the time, the city said it had “reached out to everybody” and spoken with both local and national grocery chains to see if they could fill the space.

Slim profit margins in modern-day grocery stores made the recruiting difficult, according to economic development officials.

Under the cooperation agreement, the new supermarket must work with the city to develop programs that encourage community buy-in for the store’s success.

In part, the city also wants the operator to enter into a lease for the space spanning at least 10 years.

Calls to all other council members inquiring why they voted “yes” without reading the agreement, went unanswered Wednesday.

Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander said he didn’t believe the item’s absence on the agenda was a transparency issue and called claims that it was “a stretch.”

“This is something that has been discussed in the public arena, and if someone isn’t aware this has been discussed out in the open, they either weren’t paying attention or they forgot,” Alexander said.

He said he, too, only learned the conditions of the deal within the hour he voted on them.

“What we do know is that Berkley is without a grocery store and they have been without a grocery store for quite some time,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he would be addressing with the city clerk the absence of the resolution from the city website. While the walk-on is legal, the fact the resolution isn’t online could be considered a Freedom of Information Act violation.

A spokesperson for City Manager Chip Filer said the reason for no-notice for the resolution came down to timing.

“The new company has deadlines to meet which is why Council could not wait until its next formal session on February 9 to vote on the resolution,” said Lori Crouch, the city’s communications director, in response to 10 On Your Side’s inquiry.

The question was also asked as to why Filer did not mention the agenda addition in the City Council workshop, where he often makes such announcements.

10 On Your Side is awaiting a response. Filer declined a request to be interviewed.

Smigiel said the council received an apology from Filer Wednesday.

However, what he would really like to see, is for it not to happen again.

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