Mary White Thompson has lived in Church Hill most of her life. She’s 82-years-old and was born, raised and married in the neighborhood. You can’t miss Thompson’s block: her name’s on the street sign. Some call her the Mayor of 22nd Street.
“Y'all don't have to say that,” said Thompson laughing off the accolades. “I do what I do because I love it.”
Over seven decades, Thompson’s seen the neighborhood in good times and bad. More than 25 years ago, she co-founded the New Visions Civic League to address blight and disinvestment in the community. One of the biggest things she’s championed - a full service grocery store. Thompson’s dream is right around the corner as the Market at 25th prepares for the grand opening on Monday, April 29th.
Mary White Thompson co-founded the New Visions Civic League to address blight in Church Hill. Her work has contributed to the long-awaited grocery, the Market at 25th. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)
The 27,000 square foot grocery store is located at Fairmount and Nine Mile Road. The last grocery in this area was a Community Pride, which closed in 2003. The local chain was owned by Black businessman Johnny Johnson, who opened stores in so-called food deserts across Richmond before that term was even coined.
Community leaders and elected officials have tried to bring a grocery back, but chain stores didn’t see the potential in a neighborhood with boarded up homes and high rates of poverty and unemployment.
“The history's been challenging here,” said Norm Gold, the Market at 25th’s developer. “But we're here to make a difference and really try to be a spark to make some changes here. And I think when people see this and they see how much we’re being so inclusive in every aspect of what we're carrying to the clientele we're trying to serve, I think they'll really get it.”
On a tour of the store weeks before opening, Gold and Marketing and Communications Director Kristen Spaulding Rabourdin point out features of the interior design, based on feedback from residents. At dozens of community meetings over the last two years, many emphasized the importance of Church Hill’s history. And that is celebrated throughout the store. Departments are named after neighborhood schools, like Armstrong Deli and Chimborazo Seafood. Enormous historic photographs decorate the walls. In the refrigerated section, a 400-year-long timeline of Church Hill stretches the entire aisle. It starts with the Powhatan Nation, includes notable residents like architect Ethel Bailey Furman and performer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and ends with contemporary leaders like Dr. Leonard Edloe who ran a chain of pharmacies in Richmond.
“The lovely thing is people are going to come into the store and they’re going to see themselves in the pictures,” said Rabourdin.
Rabourdin says while other stores bring their brand to a new location, the Market at 25th started with an idea and built their brand around the community.
“This store is a culmination of our neighbors, it’s a completely different way of doing it,” she said.
The Market hired historian Elvatrice Belsches, who worked on the movie Lincoln, to create this timeline. She will also create rotating exhibits in the store's community room. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE News)
Residents didn’t just want healthy food at affordable prices. Meetings held in the community, including at the public housing “courts,” highlighted an important fact: without reliable transportation you can only buy as many groceries as you can carry. So the Market worked with the company Lyft to create a service. Customers can purchase a $3 ride home (within a three mile radius) at the checkout and wait for their pick-up in a specific area outfitted with chairs at the front of the store. The company Van Go will provide free rides from the store to the public housing communities and free round-trip service to area senior homes.
Many also expressed a desire for a pharmacy. The Market was introduced to Shantelle Brown, a native of Richmond. She believes her store inside the grocery, Hope Pharmacy, will be the first pharmacy operated by a Black woman in the city. The Market is also hoping to eventually open a branch of the Richmond Heritage Federal Credit Union, founded by a group of Black teachers in 1936.
The grocery features a community room, which can be reserved for events and meetings and will be used for the Market’s partnership with the Community Idea Stations and PBS Kids.
“When they come in and they see that we really listened to them and paid attention, I think it'll make a difference and they're going to want to come in and really not just shop here but help be part of this and help take care of it,” said Gold.
In an area of Richmond with high unemployment, residents also wanted to see quality jobs. Store Director Jae Scott says more than half of the nearly 100 people they’ve hired are from the East End. Ages range from 17 to 67. Scott says courtesy clerks, those who bag your groceries, start at $9 an hour; everyone else starts at $12 or higher. Benefits are offered to full and part timers, including medical, dental, short and long term disability and 401k.
The Market also offered employees eight weeks of paid training months before the building was complete. Provided by the CARITAS Works program, it focused on both workplace and life skills training.
“In my 26 years in the grocery business, I’ve never had such a close-knit store team based on the onboarding and the training that we’ve done,” said Scott. “Just really diving into what it means to treat each other with respect, what the community means as far as having this grocery store and each employee has gotten that message and they have all bonded together around the passion they have for that message.”
One of those employees is 39-year-old Tameka Swann, who participated in some of the first community meetings about the Market back in 2016. She used to live in Creighton Court, but didn’t feel safe after a bullet went through her window. When she started the CARITAS training with the other hires last Fall, she was homeless.
“Even though I was down a lot of days they uplifted me,” said Swann. “And now I'm just this happy person that you would never see be mad or sad or anything. They taught me who I was. I always had it in me, but they brought it out of me.”
Swann says when her daughter was in the hospital, Market staff sent flowers and visited her at home. She says unlike other companies that just want you to show up on time, this is the first time she’s felt like her work is there for her.
Tameka Swann has contributed to the Market's planning sine 2016. Last year, she earned a certificate from the CARTIAS Works training, despite the challenges of being homeless at the time. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)
The Market at 25th is part of a larger development, privately funded by Steve and Kathie Markel. It includes apartments, retail, VCU’s Health Hub and the Kitchens at Reynolds, the new J. Sargeant Reynolds Culinary School. The Markels have not disclosed how much they’ve invested, though they’ve said in media reports that they don’t expect to make money from the project. Last May, the construction budget alone was about $35 million.
There have also been concerns by some residents about the lack of Black contractors involved in construction and which companies were economically benefiting from the project. Omari Al-Qadaffi, a community organizer who works on equity issues through the Richmond Food Justice Alliance, said simply building a grocery store wouldn’t solve the problems of health inequities and poor nutrition in the community.
“We primarily wanted people of color in the city that have been traditionally denied opportunities for economic progress to have some kind of progress along with the other organizations that were not run by people of color,” said Al-Qadaffi.
After social media posts outlining these concerns, Norm Gold reached out to Al-Qadaffi and listened.
“He's helped me understand what’s gone on in this area,” said Gold. “He helped me understand the intentionality that I had to show. So just by reaching out and talking to him and listening to him is how I think I've overcome as much as I can right now. There's still going to be some challenges, I know that. But it's all about listening and really being sincere and intentional about we're doing.”
Those conversations led to a partnership that connected the Market to Black entrepreneurs. The Market will feature dozens of them, from Brewer’s Cafe and Mama J’s soul food to Sun Path Farms and Pipe It Up Pickles.
There are still concerns this development will further gentrify Church Hill. The neighborhood reflects what some call “the tale of two Richmonds.” As home prices rise and the number of wealthy, white residents increases, the census tracts surrounding the Market have poverty rates between 25% and 68%. For children under 18, the number is even higher. Along with poverty comes other socio-economic indicators: higher rates of illnesses and lower rates of educational attainment.
City Council President and 7th District Representative Cynthia Newbille says the store is part of the larger efforts to address inequities in the neighborhood and elsewhere in Richmond.
“For me, I’m hopeful this is the beginning with this partnership relationship,” said Newbille. “That it’s the Market at 25th, but it’s the Market at Fulton, it’s the Market on the Northside, it’s the Market on the Southside, because we still have food deserts across the city.
Norm Gold, Kristen Spaulding Rabourdin and Jae Scott developed many of the Market's features from the ground-up, based on residents' feedback. (Photo: Catherine Komp/WCVE)
Norm Gold also hopes this is a model that can spread and be shared with communities within and outside of Richmond. But first, they’ll need to see if it’s sustainable. Gold says they’re balancing low-priced food and a special produce discount card for residents on limited-incomes with some higher-end items, like kombucha and craft beer. But what sets the Market apart - community partnerships and doing more than selling food - might be the key to their success.
“If it's just a grocery store, they'll come in if there's something that's great on an ad, but that's not what we are,” said Gold. “We're going to have obviously good, low, affordable prices, but that's not going to keep them coming in all the time. This has got to be a destination point. That will help us be successful and sustainable.”
At the grand opening, the Franklin Color Guard will give honors, the Armstrong High School Band will play and elected officials will cut a ribbon. At the front door, expect to see a beaming Mary Thompson greeting guests and seeing a decades-old dream for her community finally come true.
“I'm telling you, we are just like kids with something new coming to us,” said Thompson. “I guess we’re almost as excited as a child would be about Santa.”
This story is part of WCVE News’ Virginia Currents series.