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"A Bright Light On The Corner:" Gem City Market's Potential Goes Beyond Fresh Groceries

A picture of the outside of the Gem City Market in its final stages of construction. The building on the corner of Salem and Superior Avenue has a silver, angular top with large windows. Two trees line the side, and a banner reading "Welcome Consumer" hangs on a chain link fence along the sidewalk.
Leila Goldstein/WYSO
The Gem City Market on the corner of Salem and Superior Avenue in northwest Dayton in its final stages of construction. The cooperative supermarket is opening this winter.

The cooperative grocery store in northwest Dayton is opening this winter and could have a broader economic impact on the area.

The corner of Salem and Superior Avenue in northwest Dayton is looking a bit different these days, and people are excited.

“It's just like a bright light on the corner,” said Jacqueline Moore-Falah, a lifelong Dayton resident. “I'm so happy and elated that this is going to happen.”

That bright light is the Gem City Market, a cooperative supermarket opening this winter in an area where it can be difficult to find fresh groceries. But the benefits of the co-op go beyond providing healthy food options to residents.

Decked out in a hard hat and a highlighter yellow vest, General Manager Leah Bahan-Harris gave a tour of the Gem City Market in its final stages of construction. There are two exam rooms where a health clinic will operate, a teaching kitchen with six cooktops, and a community room next to the big front windows. The reason the market is there is for the community, she said, and she wants customers to tell her about products or programs they want at the store.

“In communities like this that are working class or predominately African-American, why sometimes when businesses come, maybe people don't feel the welcome piece,” she said. “I think what we're trying to do is make this place right here inclusive for everybody.”

Bahan-Harris grew up in Five Oaks about 10 blocks down the road from the market. Her first job was at the food court at a Walmart on Salem Avenue that has since closed. She’s built food service programs, worked as an executive chef, and served as farm manager on an organic farm. As she got older and businesses closed in the area, getting groceries in particular became a hassle.

“I would have to go to the suburbs or I'd have to go, hey I’m going to visit my friend, I’m just going to pick up groceries. And it became more like a trip,” she said.

General Manager Leah Bahan-Harris stands outside the Gem City Market while it is in its final stages of construction. The building has exposed metal and plywood panels along an entrance.  Bahan-Harris is smiling, wearing a navy blue winter vest, a pink plaid shirt and work boots.
Leila Goldstein/WYSO
Leah Bahan-Harris, the store’s general manager, said the reason the market is there is for the community.

Her experience is not unique. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 13% of the U.S. population and 14% of Ohioans live in areas that are low income and have low access to food stores. Ohio had over 300,000 more people living in these areas in 2015 than in 2010, the biggest increase of any state in the country.

There has been a movement across the country to solve this problem by building supermarkets in those places. But living close to a grocery store does not always mean that healthy food is accessible.

“If you live next to a grocery store, you can still not be able to afford the food there,” said Catherine Brinkley, who studies food policy at the University of California, Davis. “If you live far away, if you have enough money, of course, you can afford to eat whatever you want.”

In her research she has found that diet-related health correlates more with income than proximity to a supermarket.

“But what grocery stores do offer communities is oftentimes ATMs, pharmacies, job opportunity. They have ripple effects in the housing market,” she said.

There are signs of revitalization happening where the Gem City Market is being built. Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the market has been galvanizing conversations about development along Salem Avenue.

“It's not only the fact that the community said, hey, we need a market, but that market is driving other people to look at investment in a place that hasn't been invested in in a very long time,” she said.

Whaley said doing development that does not make an area too expensive for current residents is tough work that she thinks the city is doing pretty well at.

“You do development and then you will price everybody that lives in the community out of the development or you never do development. Both are terrible options,” she said. “How you get the sweet spot is, I think, the strive of the city.”

The chart has information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on low-income and low-access census tracts broken down by state. Ohio had over 300,000 more people living in census tracts that are low-income and have low access to food stores in 2015 than in 2010. This was the greatest increase of any state in the country.
Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture
LILA refers Low Income and Low Access populations, as defined by the USDA. Ohio had over 300,000 more people living in census tracts that are low-income and have low access to food stores in 2015 than in 2010. This was the greatest increase of any state in the country.

Gem City Market organizers think the cooperative model, where members are involved in decision-making, will help combat possible gentrification in the neighborhood. Since 2015, there have been many community meetings, local artists contributing to the design, and now virtual volunteer trainings.

Corinne Sanders is a co-op member and volunteers as the community engagement coordinator for the market. At a recent training on Zoom she said this is like a new beginning for the community that will bring this part of Dayton alive again.

“It's just fallen to the wayside and nobody was paying any attention to Dayton anymore,” she said. “Years ago, we had a slogan of Dayton, the City Beautiful. And it's far from that anymore.”

She wants the Gem City Market to help people feel pride in their neighborhood. And Bahan-Harris said the project goes beyond opening a brick and mortar store in the area.

“It’s more than just a need for retail. It's a need of being heard. I think it's a need of being seen,” she said. “I think the vulnerability of the community coming together to share their goals and share their pain, it’s what will make this project so successful.”

And there is data to back this up. A study on grocery stores opening in food deserts found that community-driven stores like cooperatives have more staying power than commercial retailers. Bahan-Harris said she is excited just imagining what the community will bring.