Commission ends East Gainesville grocery project

The Gainesville City Commission voted in line with the staff recommendation and did not move forward with a plan for a grocery store on SE Hawthorne Road.

Even if the commission had wanted to move forward with the current plan, Fred Washington, who submitted the proposal, said he would have to convince Bravo Supermarket to return and set up at the spot.

At the start of the meeting, Washington asked for 30 days to discuss with Bravo and show them survey results that say 92 percent of respondents want the supermarket.

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Washington noted the difficulty in trying to convince a grocery store to enter a food desert, especially where two other companies had already failed. He said Bravo had been willing and stayed the course for months before deciding to leave the deal.

Washington said he didn’t blame Bravo because of the treatment the company received.

“You would have thought that we were trying to bring weapons-grade uranium over to east Gainesville the way that we were treated,” Washington said of community meetings that he and Bravo officials attended.

Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry said staff feels it’s best not to move forward with the proposal after the due diligence process and added that financial firm PFM, which the city holds on retainer, agreed with the assessment.

Roberta Griffith, director of strategic initiatives for the city, read off some of the details from the due diligence report, including information that was not received or lacking.

The developer had failed to appraise the property, didn’t have artistic renderings or have a five-year business plan available along with other concerns to city staff.

Two of Washington’s partners had also pulled out of the project.

Commissioner Reina Saco asked if the information asked for in December was the same as that the city requested in August.

Fred Washington at Gainesville City Commission meeting

City staff had started due diligence in August but stopped after Washington asked for a 90 day community feedback period. When Washington indicated his desire to restart in late November, the due diligence was picked back up by the manager’s office now under the leadership of Curry.

Griffith replied that the question and information requested in August and December were the same with some clarifying questions.

Washington spoke to the due diligence process and said he’d been given two days during the holiday season to complete it. He added that the due diligence was also not a continuation of the same questions.

According to city staff’s timeline provided in the backup, Griffith sent the last term sheet and due diligence document from August on Dec. 10 to be updated, reflecting that a partner of Washington’s—Josephine Hart—had pulled out of the project.

In a Dec. 20 email, Hart told city staff that her decision to leave didn’t relate to concerns about insufficient distributions.

“It did have to do with the highly contentious community engagement meetings and my assessment of what was required of [SHW Grocers, LLC] to meet the citizens’ wants and needs,” Hart said.

Washington returned the documents on Dec. 13, though the term sheet still included comments by Hart.

On Dec. 14, city staff sent a second set of 21 new or clarifying questions and asked for a response by Dec. 17 at 5 p.m. Washington returned the document on Dec. 16.

Saco said she was disappointed because she wanted the project to work, adding that she saw shortcoming over the past eight months.

“I see a lot of shortcomings in the last eight months,” Saco said. “I don’t want to say it’s staff, I don’t want to say it’s Mr. Washington, I don’t want to say it’s the community. A lot of holes appeared.”

She said the current plan was too half baked for city money and it was time to step back from this project.

Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed, saying they did due diligence and it didn’t work out.

“I think we’ve learned a lot over the last several months,” Mayor Lauren Poe said. “Some of it uncomfortable and unfortunate. Some of it, I think, that will really help us as an organization as we move forward.”

Commissioners expressed interest in opening up a request for proposal process open to any parties. Poe added that Washington and Bravo could come back again during future planning.

“I want you to know that we have no intentions of ever doing this again,” Washington said, earlier calling the process outrageous and demeaning.

He told the commission he hoped the project worked out for the residents’ sake. He added that if nothing happens on the site, he hopes residents take note of the opportunity that was offered.

He ended his time saying, “This is not the way to recruit business to Gainesville.”

The commission voted unanimously, with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker absent, to end the project. Poe discussed bringing up the issue of food scarcity in East Gainesville at a meeting next week to talk about future projects and how the city might move forward.

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