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Save-a-Lot is food oasis in north county grocery desert

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 6, 2010 - As she held and examined leafy green vegetables at the new Save-A-Lot grocery store in Pagedale the other day, Coreen Davis didn't need to be reminded that she hasn't been able to walk into a new supermarket in that part of St. Louis County for 40 years.

It's been that long since any grocer has opened a store in Pagedale. This one, at 6840 Page Avenue, is special because it adds a little greenery to a food desert that stretches westward from parts of the northern end of the city into bedroom communities such as Pagedale and Wellston.

This is the second time in recent weeks that a community has taken steps to bring fresh vegetables and other goods to an underserved area. Last month, Old North St. Louis took on the same issue by opening a well-stocked food coop.

But the spreading food desert was far from the mind of Davis on Thursday as she pushed a cart along the aisles and took in the sites of neatly stacked fruits, vegetables and canned goods in the brightly lit store.

"It's really nice to have a grocery store in this area," she says, "and the prices are really reasonable."

The idea of a supermarket in Pagedale grew out of conversations among Beyond Housing, Pagedale officials and residents about housing and economic development issues.

"The first thing that just about everybody talked about was that they'd like to see a grocery store," says Chris Krehmeyer, president and CEO of Beyond Housing. "That was the first project we wanted to come out of the economic development plan."

He said he wasn't surprised that a supermarket was at the top of the wish list. "The food desert is an incredibly important issue. Getting access to fresh produce and vegetables and having a place close buy where you can get good healthy food at a good price is critical to the well-being not only of citizens of Pagedale but for surrounding communities."

He added that it wasn't easy to make the store a reality. The process involved tax increment financing, the buyout of about 10 properties, and developing the project "in a way that the provider of the grocery store in this case can pay rent that makes economic sense."

Those at the grand opening, in addition to Krehmeyer, included Pagedale Mayor Mary Carter, County Executive Charlie Dooley, and Rick Meyer, senior vice president at Save-a-Lot. Meyer was asked how his company was able to open supermarkets in urban neighborhoods that had been deserted by some other businesses.

"It may be unusual for some to do this, but not for us," he says. "We've been doing it all over the country. We pride ourselves in finding those opportunities and in working with local community leaders the way we did in Pagedale."

Meyer said the company had done the same thing in tougher locations. "For example, we went back into New Orleans. It was a sad, sad story after Katrina, and almost everybody else said they were not sure they were going back. Our stores were damaged like everybody else's. But we went back."

He says, "customers appreciate our small size stores. They're convenient and they're priced right."

About 75 percent to 80 percent of Save-a-Lot's merchandise consists of private labels, which helps the chain to reduce its prices.

"Private labels used to carry baggage many, many years ago, but that's not the case today," Meyer said. "Most every retailer, particularly grocery stores, has private labels. We get it from the same folks who produce name brands, but they have allowed people to buy their products with a private label."

He said the pieces in Pagedale came together because the cooperation among his company, local government officials and a nonprofit group, Beyond Housing.

"This is a very rewarding example of private, public and nonprofit organizations making something special happen," Meyer said.

The chain, whose headquarters is in St. Louis County, has about 1,200 stores in 39 states. At the grand opening of the Pagedale store, Save-A-Lot donated $5,000 to the St. Louis Area Food Bank, which supplies grocery items to charitable groups.