Commission to discuss east side grocery store—again

The Gainesville City Commission is set to hold a special meeting at 1 p.m Thursday to discuss building a grocery store on the east side of Gainesville.

Thursday’s meeting comes after the city extended an invitation to receive bids to build a grocery store with a $3.3 million incentive. That timeframe ended July 22 and netted zero applicants.

At the commission’s June 17th meeting, commissioners clashed on the issue of process. All agreed that the area needed a grocery story, but how the city acquired one remained in limbo.

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Months earlier, Commissioner Gail Johnson instructed the city government to begin looking for ways to pool $3 million to $5 million to fund the project and start a community engagement process. Then the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act passed on March 11, giving Gainesville access to $32 million in federal funding.

The ARP Act allows the city to fund projects that help cover negative impacts of the pandemic, like financially assisting small businesses, households and industries. Proposals ranged from GRU assistance to an east side medical center.

Also in the months following Johnson’s instruction, an unsolicited offer came to the city. Fred Washington, a Jacksonville-based real estate developer, approached Gainesville with an offer to build a Bravo grocery store at 2286 SE Hawthorne Road.

He met with the commissioners and locals leading up to the June 17 meeting, walking them through the space and evaluating how the space could be used.

At the June meeting, he approached the city with a proposal: The city would loan $3.3 million, of the more than $7 million needed, to Washington in order to help fund the store. If the store fulfilled metrics—such as hiring a set number of locals and remaining operational a set number of hours per year—the loan would be forgiven within 10 years.

The terms also required part of the land be loaned to the city at a price of $1 per year in order to maintain a RTS mobility hub.

Most of the commissioners agreed the deal looked good, but the typical city bid process hadn’t been followed. The commission had not sent out an open invitation for interested parties to put forward bids on creating the grocery store.

“I need a grocery store in East Gainesville,” Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said at the meeting.

Duncan-Walker, whose District I includes the potential grocery story site, said she agreed that Washington’s proposal appeared to fill the area’s needs.

“But I’m a firm believer that this process has to be open,” Duncan-Walker said. “We have to be consistent across the board.”

Commissioners Arreola and Johnson agreed.

“I feel like I’m in this seat, especially my second term, because of this community grocery,” Johnson said. “I literally ran on this community grocery.”

However, she said that the way this offer came about—a private proposal arranged with the city manager—was a slippery slope.

“I am a stickler for process,” Johnson said.

Commissioner Reina Saco said she was overjoyed at the proposal but dismayed at her fellow commissioners unwillingness to accept it on the spot. She said following the correct process only seemed to matter for certain proposals, an excuse used as a political tool.

“If you are comfortable denying people a solid and ready-to-go plan to have food access, and still deny it, then shame on you,” Saco said to the commission.

Commissioner Harvey Ward said the proposal didn’t meet current procedure because the commission doesn’t have a plan in place for receiving unsolicited offers like Washington’s. Ward said that restricted the commission’s ability to act nimbly when offers came.

At the end of the meeting the commission voted on four separate motions made by Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos.

The commissioners approved the motions to open a 30-day window for the city to receive new proposals with a $3.3 million incentive for an East Gainesville grocery store, to create an economic development policy for non-solicited proposals, and to schedule tomorrow’s special meeting for the East Gainesville grocery store project.

The commission failed to pass a fourth motion that directed the city attorney’s office to work on finalizing the term sheet with Washington while also creating initial term sheets for any new proposals received during the 30-day time frame. The motion failed 3-4 with Mayor Lauren Poe, Saco and Hayes-Santos voting in the affirmative.

ARP funding timeline

March 11: President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan Act.

May 10: Department of Treasury releases half of the funding; second half to come in a year.

June 14: Proposals submitted.

June 26: Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI) returns proposals for revision.

June 28, 29, 30: OEI hold feedback sessions.

July 2: Revised proposals due.

July 15: Canceled commission meeting where OEI would have presented revised proposals with rating and community feedback to the city commission.

July 29: Commission meeting to discuss using ARP for East Gainesville grocery store.

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