To give North Waco residents a low-cost option for buying fresh meat and produce, Mission Waco will convert an old building at North 15th Street and Colcord Avenue into a nonprofit grocery store that could open within six months, if fundraising and construction do not hit snags.
It’s a serious undertaking, but Mission Waco executive director Jimmy Dorrell has not lost his sense of humor over the challenge it represents.
“There is a good chance that Wal-Mart and H-E-B both will have to close down when he get going,” Dorrell joked during a phone interview Tuesday.
Nearly 80 percent of the area residents who attended a meeting on what to do with the building, ironically a former Safeway store, indicated a preference for converting it into a grocery store to serve what Dorrell described as a “desert” for people seeking nutritional food and not just convenience store fare.
He now is tapping into local, state and national resources he has cultivated over 23 years of running Mission Waco to get tips on operating a grocery store, securing food items to be sold there and locating sources of financial help for a project that could run $300,000 to $500,000.
Already, crews have replaced the roof of the 6,500-square-foot building, installed security lights “because we had copper stolen even before we moved inside,” and prepared a plan for removing asbestos from the structure, Dorrell said. He also is preparing a business plan and design rendering and pursuing city permits, he said.
“I told the neighborhood we will pursue a grocery store until we hit a roadblock we can’t overcome, and so far we haven’t,” Dorrell said.
Plans also call for construction of a greenhouse where a red-tagged house will be demolished. The planned greenhouse will facilitate the growing of fresh fruits and vegetables for the store.
“That probably will cost an additional $75,000,” said Dorrell, who is pursuing a $125,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The grocery store will operate not far from the Mission Waco complex that includes the World Cup Cafe and Fair Trade Market, the Jubilee Theatre, the Urban Expressions center and the headquarters for programs for at-risk youngsters and the Church Under the Bridge ministry.
Dorrell said he likely will hire at least six people to work in the grocery store, probably from the low-income neighborhood nearby. He also hopes to find someone to work with shoppers in selecting nutritional items and educating them on the benefits of eating healthy and avoiding junk food.
“We’re selling a concept, something bigger than just a store. We’re selling healthy eating,” Dorrell said, adding that reliance upon convenience stores that offer most of the food and drink options in the neighborhood may contribute to obesity and other health problems of residents.
Waco Councilman Dillon Meek, whose District 4 includes a swath of North Waco, said he is thrilled the organization “is willing to be creative in addressing a huge need in that neighborhood. It is true that many of the people in that district do not have easy access to a grocery store, that it indeed is a grocery desert.”
The nearest full-service grocery store is the H-E-B at North 19th Street and Park Lake Drive, which is 2.2 miles from the neighborhood around Mission Waco and which represents a round trip of nearly five miles. Dorrell said that distance represents a hardship for people without a vehicle or a driver’s license.
“This is a daunting task, but Jimmy is doing his homework and he has a proven concept in World Cup Cafe. He knows how to make a business work, and he’s an expert in getting money in different ways,” Meek said, adding that Dorrell has applied for a federal Community Development Block Grant administered by the city with council approval.
“It sounds positive,” said James Mitchell, former president of the now-defunct North Waco Neighborhood Association, which transformed into the Cameron Park Neighborhood Association. “We don’t even have a Walgreens or a CVS Pharmacy in our area, and the convenience stores charge exorbitant prices.”
Mitchell said a full- service grocery store would go over very well, and a nonprofit grocery such as the one planned by Mission Waco has potential.
“I think people from all over North Waco would shop there, if the prices are competitive,” he added.
Samantha Jones, whose family owns North Waco Tropical Fish at 1521 N. 15th St., said she is excited about the prospect of a grocery opening nearby.
“I would shop there,” Jones said. “It’s within walking distance and would be very nice to have. We have no grocery in this neighborhood now.”
Dorrell has secured the assistance of Scott Truex, an associate professor of urban planning at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and co-director of the school’s Sustainable Communities Institute. John Motloch, a landscape architecture professor at Ball State, will join Truex in working with Dorrell.
They produced a preliminary site plan showing a grocery store; customer parking; a food court; a parking area for food trucks; a greenhouse; a composting area; and pens and coops for chickens, bees, goats and rabbits. They will continue to provide consulting services at a reduced rate, according to a letter to Dorrell.
Meanwhile, Mark Newton, a facility engineer for The Kroger Co. in Dallas, and Nick Benavidez, who retired from the Kroger grocery chain after a career in operations and merchandising, are working with Dorrell on laying out the grocery store and choosing products it should offer.
Benavidez, 63, said he met Dorrell at a seminar at Watermark Community Church in Dallas, and they discussed his vision for a nonprofit grocery.
“I think it’s wonderful, what he has done already in the community. Being able to bring in a grocery store is amazing,” Benavidez said. “We said, ‘OK, Jimmy, God is going to use us. We will help you get this figured out, but it’s all about what God wants us to do.’ ”
Obviously, Dorrell said, the store will welcome anyone, but he is mulling the idea of issuing something comparable to a membership card to people living in the immediate area. The store will carry canned goods, dry goods, produce and fresh meats, as well as a selection of items such as diapers, baby formula and toiletries.
“It will be priced as cheaply as possible, maybe a tad over wholesale, but we’re still discussing our price structure,” Dorrell said.
Dorrell said he is looking into acquiring goods from suppliers in Houston and also will tap local resources such as World Hunger Relief, community gardens and area farms.
“If we have good healthy food, and people believe in what we’re doing, they may shop here instead of the big stores,” Dorrell said.
Beginning Wednesday, Mission Waco will park its Urban Edibles food truck outside the building to sell lunch items.